Unlike many other democracies across the world — Great Britain, Germany and India, for example — the United States has not yet elected a woman as head of state. But that’s not for lack of trying.
Unlike many other democracies across the world — Great Britain, Germany and India, for example — the United States has not yet elected a woman as head of state. But that’s not for lack of trying. A handful of women have run for president, starting with Victoria Woodhull in 1872, as a candidate of the Equal Rights Party.
The Equal Rights Party was a breakaway group from the National Women’s Rights Association, the pre-eminent women’s suffrage organization of that time. Its main platform was women’s right to vote. Leading suffragists were impressed when they heard Woodhull speak before the House Judiciary Committee of Congress in January 1871, where she argued that the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution already gave women the constitutional right to vote: “[W]omen are the equals of men before the law and are equal in all of their rights.”
In addition to supporting the rights of women to vote, Woodhull was a vocal proponent of what was called “Free Love,” which she defined as a woman’s right to leave a bad marriage and love whomever she chose without government interference.
A woman whose place was not in the home
The Equal Rights Party fielded another woman for president in 1884 and 1888. Belva Lockwood was one of the first female lawyers to practice in the United States. She was awarded her diploma from law school over the objections of her male classmates only after President Ulysses S. Grant, then ex officio head of the school, intervened. Then a judge barred her from practicing law in Maryland in 1873, stating,
“Women are not needed in the courts. Their place is in the home to wait upon their husbands, to bring up the children, to cook the meals, make beds, polish pans and dust furniture.”
The legal status of married women at that time supported the judge’s position. Married women were considered to be legally subordinate to their husbands. In many states, a married woman could not own or inherit property in her own name, make contracts, or even keep money she earned herself unless her husband gave permission. Based on this legal status, judges denied Lockwood the right to practice law.
Lockwood responded by drafting a bill that would require courts to give the same access to female lawyers as male. She personally lobbied Congress from 1874 to 1879 and was finally successful in seeing the bill passed. Lockwood was sworn in as the first female member of the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1879 and, one year later, became the first female lawyer to argue a case before the Court.
Lockwood ran for president because she believed her candidacy would help the campaign for women’s suffrage. She couldn’t vote, she said, but invited men to vote for her. She ran a campaign supporting suffrage, civil service reform, protection for Native Americans and public lands, temperance, and the federalization of family law.
First female Republican candidate
Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president at the convention of a major political party. This happened at the Republican Convention in 1964 in San Francisco. She placed fifth in the initial balloting and ultimately lost the nomination to Barry Goldwater but denied him unanimous nomination on the first ballot by refusing to withdraw her name.
She said of her candidacy, “When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.”
Smith was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. She entered the House in 1940, appointed to fill the unexpired term of her husband who had died. Thereafter she ran for and won the House seat in her own right four times.
She served in the Senate from 1949 to 1972. She was known in the Senate for being one of the first to oppose Senate Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt. In a famous speech called “The Declaration of Conscience,” she called out
“the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle …. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horseman of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”
First female Democratic candidate
Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to serve in Congress, where she served from 1969 to 1983. In 1972 she became the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president and the first major party black candidate for president. She received 152 votes on the first ballot at the Democratic convention in Miami Beach, Florida.
While in Congress, Chisholm was a co-founder of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus and she helped establish both the food stamp program and WIC nutrition program for poor women and children.
Chisholm said on several occasions that the gender discrimination she faced throughout her career was worse than the racial discrimination. “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men,” she said.
Overdue for a woman in the Oval Office
Two women have been nominated for vice president on major party tickets in recent years: Geraldine Ferraro on the Democratic ticket in 1984, and Sarah Palin was nominated for vice president on the Republican ticket in 2008. Both were nominated more for the value of putting a woman on the ticket than for their own individual stature.
In 2008, former first lady and U.S. senator Hillary Clinton was the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination. She ultimately lost the nomination to Barack Obama.
Maybe, almost 100 years after women got the vote, 2016 will finally be the year when America sees a woman as a major-party candidate and, dare we say it, America’s first female president. It is certainly past time.