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Is a woman's place in the White House?

The surprisingly long history of female presidential candidates

Created date

April 5th, 2016
Victoria Claflin Woodhull, circa 1870

Victoria Claflin Woodhull, circa 1870

Early in 2016, there were two women running for President of the United States— Secretary Hillary Clinton, for the Democrats, and Carly Fiorina, who subsequently withdrew from the race, for the Republicans. A poll conducted for YouGov in 2015 shows that 67% of Americans believe the United States is ready to elect a female president. 

While the possibility of having a female president is making news in the current election cycle, women have been vying for the highest office in the land well before they even had the right to vote. 

First woman candidate

The very first female presidential candidate was Victoria Claflin Woodhull in 1872. “I now announce myself as candidate for the presidency,” said Claflin Woodhull. “I anticipate criticism, but, however unfavorable, I trust that my sincerity will not be called into question.”

Prior to her foray into presidential politics, Claflin Woodhull had made a fortune as a “magnetic healer” and spiritualist. She used her fortune to found a stock brokerage firm. In fact, Claflin Woodhull and her sister were Wall Street’s very first female stockbrokers. 

Claflin Woodhull represented the Equal Rights Party and named abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass as her running mate. (Douglass did not participate in the campaign or even acknowledge his place on the ticket.) 

Claflin Woodhull could not cast a ballot to vote for herself since women were not afforded the right to vote until 1920 with the passage of the 20th amendment. In an interesting footnote to the historic 1872 election, woman’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony was arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, N.Y., for attempting to vote in the presidential election.

More women on the ballot

Attorney Belva Ann Lockwood ran for president first in 1884 and again in 1888.  Lockwood didn’t stand much of a chance considering her name made it onto the ballot in only a few states. She did make history in another significant first, however. Lockwood was the first woman lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In 1940, Gracie Allen, of the popular comedy team Burns and Allen, ran for president as a publicity stunt. She announced that she was running on the “Surprise Party” ticket. The party’s mascot was a kangaroo and their campaign slogan was “It’s in the bag.”

Allen and her husband and partner George Burns embarked on a cross-country whistle-stop tour aboard a private train, performing their live radio program along the way. Despite the fact that Harvard University endorsed her, Allen lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. She did, however, receive 42,000 votes in the general election.

Margaret Chase Smith

The first time a woman had her name placed in nomination by a major political party was in 1964. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), who was also the first woman to have served in both the House and the Senate, received 227,007 votes in the Republican Primary and won 27 first ballot votes at the Republican National Convention. Chase Smith removed her name from contention before the second ballot.

Aside from her presidential run, Chase Smith is best remembered for her famous “Declaration of Conscience” speech, which was highly critical of Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) and the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the speech, Chase Smith said she believed that all Americans have the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, and the right of independent thought.


The year 1972 brought out a number of female candidates for the Democratic nomination. 

Most notably, Representative Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.). The first African-American woman elected to Congress, Chisholm was also the first major party African-American candidate to run for president. Chisholm earned 52 votes at the Democratic National Convention. 

In later years, Chisholm, who began her career as a school teacher, spoke to college students around the nation, telling them, “If you don’t accept others who are different, it means nothing that you’ve learned calculus.”

That same year, Representative Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink (D-Hawaii) also campaigned for president, running on an anti-war platform. Mink   was the first Asian-American to run for the highest office in the nation. 

Finally, Representative Bella Abzug, (D-N.Y.) cast her hat into the ring, literally (Abzug was well known for her extensive hat collection). She may be remembered best for her campaign slogan which continues to appear on t-shirts and coffee mugs: “A woman’s place is in the house—the House of Representatives.”

Subsequent decades saw a long list of now familiar names launching campaigns for the presidency, including Representative Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.), Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), Secretary Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) and Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Some won a primary or two, but they all ended up dropping out of the race before the general election. 

Should Hillary Clinton earn the nomination of the Democratic Party and make it onto the ballot for president in November, she will be the first woman to do so.