Hillary Clinton made no small amount of history in becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. She is the first woman in the 240-year history of the United States to have a legitimate chance to be elected president. From an historical perspective, that’s huge.
But Hillary is not the first woman to run for president, nor even the first to be nominated by a political party (though all other female nominees belonged to smaller parties). So this seems an appropriate time to consider some of Hillary’s forerunners. A few of the women, you might say, who put the first cracks in that glass ceiling.
Note that this list does not include women such as Elizabeth Dole, Carol Mosely Braun, Michelle Bachman or Pat Schroeder – Senators and Representatives who have made their own runs for the presidency in recent decades. Each of their candidacies no doubt represented one more step on the road to electing a female president, but this piece is focused on historic firsts achieved by women in presidential campaigns.
Victoria Woodhull (1872) – The very first woman to ever run for President of the United States did so nearly 50 years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave all women in the country the right to vote. In 1872, the Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria Woodhull as its presidential candidate. Woodhull was a young (not yet 35) and well-known activist for women’s rights and she ran on a platform of equal rights for all and women’s suffrage.
Woodhull was a unique character and candidate. A spiritualist and an advocate of free love, she was also a newspaper editor, the first woman stockbroker on Wall Street (along with her sister, Tennessee), and the first woman to testify before a Congressional committee (where she argued that women were citizens who should have the right to vote based on the 14th and 15th Amendments). As part of the effort to emphasize her party’s advocacy of equal rights, Woodhull’s running mate was Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had risen to become a writer, orator and a leader of the abolitionist movement. Yes, a woman and an African American on the same ticket! Alas, Douglass never actually acknowledged his nomination.
As for how Woodhull did in the election, well, there are no records of whether she received any popular votes. Most likely, any votes she did receive were simply never recorded. Nonetheless, she made her mark on history as the first woman with the audacity to mount a presidential campaign – during an era when women still didn’t have the legal right to cast a vote.
Belva Ann Lockwood (1884) – Victoria Woodhull may have been the first woman to run for president, but Belva Ann Lockwood was the first to appear on a ballot and receive official votes. An attorney (who was also the first woman admitted to practice before the Supreme Court), Lockwood was the candidate of the Equal Rights Party. She received about 4,100 votes in nine states, although it was reported that additional votes were discarded or not counted.
Margaret Chase Smith (1964) – The first woman who made a genuine bid for the nomination of major political party was Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. In 1964, after serving for more than two decades as a Congresswoman and Senator, she ran for the Republican presidential nomination. She didn’t win any state primaries, but she received 227,000 votes and placed fifth in the balloting (with 27 delegates) at the national convention, where Barry Goldwater became that year’s Republican nominee.
Shirley Chisholm (1972) – Shirley Chisholm was the first female officeholder to mount a campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as the first African American. The first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Chisholm served in Washington for 14 years. She received 430,000 votes during the 1972 presidential campaign and 152 delegates at that year’s Democratic convention, whose nominee was George McGovern.
Lenora Fulani (1988) – Lenora Fulani made history in 1988 when she became the first woman to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. A psychologist and community activist, Fulani ran as a candidate of the New Alliance Party with a focus on racial equality and political reform. She received 217,000 votes, which at the time was the most votes ever for a female candidate.
Jill Stein (2012) – And that brings us to Jill Stein of the Green Party, which promotes environmentalism, social justice and grassroots democracy. A physician turned political activist, Stein in 2012 set the record for most votes by a woman presidential candidate in a national election with 468,000. She is also a candidate for the presidency this year and is attracting a fair amount of attention as an alternative choice for disappointed supporters of Bernie Sanders. With this added attention, there is a strong likelihood that Stein will break her own record for total votes this year.
Of course, she is also all but certain to be eclipsed herself by Hillary Clinton who will be making the most serious run at the presidency ever by a female candidate. Whatever your politics, you have to appreciate the history of the moment.