9 women who paved the way for a first female president


When Hillary Clinton bowed out of the 2008 presidential election, she counted the “18 million cracks” her campaign had left in the White House’s glass ceiling, an achievement that would hopefully make the next female candidate’s path a little easier.

That’s been the general narrative of female presidential, and vice-presidential, campaigns in the U.S. going all the way back to Margaret Chase Smith in 1964; these candidates were not only running for themselves, but for the women who would follow in their footsteps.

Here’s a closer look at eight women — nine if you count Clinton twice, which, um, why not — who will have made the first female President of the United States a possibility, whomever she may be.

1. Margaret Chase Smith

The hawkish Republican Representative-turned-Senator from Maine entered the 1964 race, in part, to counter the idea that “no woman should ever aspire to the White House.”

But Chase Smith’s campaign was weakened by her team’s efforts to re-affirm their candidate’s femininity in the face of the implicitly male office she sought. Janann Sherman’s biography of the politician, No Place for a Woman, cites the “blueberry muffin incident,” among others, in which Chase Smith shared a favorite recipe at a press luncheon followed by the muffins themselves.

It’s easy to look back on that misstep and roll your eyes, but remember that Chase Smith, as the first woman to ever seek the presidential nomination of a major party in the U.S., probably would have been criticized for shying away from her femininity entirely. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, ultimately losing the Republication nomination to Barry Goldwater, a man with 13 years less experience in politics.

2. Shirley Chisholm

During her time in the New York State Assembly, Chisholm says she learned that the “first rule” of political organizations is “don’t rock the boat.” In 1972, then a U.S. Representative, she decided to do just that by becoming the first black woman to seek the presidential nomination on a major-party ticket.

The cards were stacked against the National Organization for Women co-founder, what with her anti-establishment positions and all. But her unwavering stances on sexism, racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War gave her a national presence and plenty of support far beyond the borders of New York’s 12th Congressional District.

Chisholm managed to collect 28 committed delegates — 12 more than Chase Smith — and saw her campaign through to the end, conceding to South Dakota Senator George McGovern at the Democratic National Convention.

But like Chase Smith before her, Chisholm didn’t view her campaign as hers alone. “The door is not open yet, but it is ajar,” she’s quoted as saying in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz’s African Americans and the Presidency. “The next time a woman runs, or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe he or she will be taken seriously from the start.”

3. Geraldine Ferraro

“My name is Geraldine Ferraro,” the first female candidate for vice president on a major-party ticket greeted the 1984 Democratic National Convention floor. “I stand before you to proclaim tonight, America is the land where dreams come true.”

While the U.S. Representative from New York’s running mate, Walter Mondale, lost to President Ronald Reagan that November, her selection proved that the nation — not to mention a major political organization like the Democratic Party — was closer than ever before to see a woman in the White House.

4. Pat Schroeder

The U.S. Representative from Colorado and Harvard Law grad launched an exploratory committee in 1987 following the collapse of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign, which she chaired.

While Schroeder understood the symbolic importance of seeking the Democratic nomination — Nichola D. Gutgold’s Paving the Way for Madam President quotes her as saying “Women have to run like men do. We have to run for president” about Ferraro in 1984 — a symbolic victory wasn’t all she sought. “The only reason to go in this is to win,” she said about her own campaign. “I think America is man enough to back a woman.”

Schroeder’s team failed to raise their goal of $2 million dollars by September of ’87, however, and she announced that she was pulling out of the race.

5. Carol Moseley Braun

Fast-forward a couple decades, and funding remained a key issue for another female candidate seeking the Democratic nomination, Carol Moseley Braun, who eventually withdrew from the 2004 race.

The U.S. Senator from Illinois-turned-Ambassador to New Zealand knew her campaign was a “long shot,” as she told NPR’s Bob Edwards. But she firmly believed that America was at a “tipping point,” according to Paving the Way for Madam President, and that the American people “won’t recognize this country five years from now” if President George W. Bush were to be re-elected.

6. Hillary Clinton

Enter Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2008 — until a senator named Barack Obama, a.k.a. our 44th and current POTUS, came along.

The First Lady-turned-U.S. Senator from New York’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, says that Hillaryland chose to emphasize their candidate’s experience and readiness to lead, two qualities that are often withheld from women in the public sphere. As a result, many Democratic voters, especially younger ones, associated Clinton’s “experience” with “more of the same,” and opted for Obama’s platform of hope, change, and a new way forward instead.

Anne E. Kornblut argues in Noted from the Cracked Ceiling that an equal emphasis on Clinton’s family and personal history could have gone a long way in humanizing her for voters. Then again, a female candidate risks weakening her public perception by talking about her home life (remember what happened to Margaret Chase Smith?), something male candidates don’t have to worry about.

Although she did not win her party’s nomination in ’08, Clinton’s campaign was historic; she won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire on January 8 of that year, making her the first woman to achieve such a victory for either party.

7. Sarah Palin

When Sen. John McCain tapped the relatively unknown Gov. Palin to be his 2008 running mate, many — like Anne E. Kornblut in Notes from the Cracked Ceiling — wondered whether the move was intended to lure disaffected Clinton voters over to the Right with the promise of a female nominee.

Either way, Palin positioned her candidacy for vice president as the fulfillment of Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Geradline Ferraro, and, yes, even Hillary Clinton’s White House ambitions.

“It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest ceiling,” the Governor told supporters at a Dayton, Ohio rally following her appointment. “But it turns out that the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”

Palin and McCain’s ’08 bid for the presidency proved unsuccessful, and the following year she resigned as Governor of Alaska. Although the future of her political career remains to be seen, she’s fashioned a pretty powerful bully pulpit for herself via social media.

8. Michele Bachmann

Bachmann’s 2012 campaign to gain the GOP nomination got off to a strong start thanks to her hardline-conservative fiscal, social, and foreign policy platforms. But her support soon waned, and the Representative from Minnesota withdrew herself from the race following a sixth-place finish in Iowa.

In 2013, Bachmann told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that although she’s not planning a presidential run any time soon, she’s “not taking anything off the table.”

9. Hillary Clinton (again)

Contrary to what then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Ann Curry on the “Today” show in 2009, the 2008 Democratic hopeful has decided to run for president once more.

Will her 2016 campaign be the battering ram to finally shatter the White House’s glass ceiling? The polling numbers are certainly in Hillary’s favor, but — remember! — the election is still a year and a half away. It’s hurts to say it, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Bad at filling out bios seeks same.

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