Constitution Daily

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The history of women in politics

May 11, 2016 by Paula Baker


Editor’s Note: This commentary is part of a series presented in conjunction with the Center’s feature exhibition, Headed to the White House.

Strange things have happened in this exceedingly strange political season, but barring the extremely improbable, Hillary Clinton will receive the Democratic nomination and be in an excellent position to win the presidency in the general election. This would be a historic first: the first time a woman gained the nomination of a major party and the White House in a capacity other than First Lady.

Despite a barrier toppled, the prospect somehow doesn’t feel like a great historic first.

The Clinton candidacy itself of contributes to the stifled yawn about the historic status of her potential victory. There is no shiny new thing about her. This is her second national race, and she served as a senator before that. Most famously, she spent most of a decade as an admired or loathed First Lady. The weight and wheels that come with the Clintonian baggage attaches to her candidacy. Gender alone can’t offset the wear and tear of the decades of Clintons in American public life.

The history of women in politics also explains why Clinton’s candidacy seems less than earth shaking. Her march through the nomination feels less like Barack Obama’s—which came at a time when many Americans could remember African Americans murdered because they tried to register to vote in the South—than it does like John F. Kennedy’s nomination and election. In 1960 anti-Catholicism still existed, but did so alongside pride in having moved beyond that prejudice. For decades it’s seemed like only a matter of time before a woman made a successful run at the presidency. The only question was which party would nominate a woman first.

From the colonial period forward, women with and without the vote had been involved in politics. Women supported or opposed the Revolution through their work, words, and sacrifices. Property-owning women in a few colonies had the right to vote; until 1807 widows and single women who met the property qualification would continue to hold the franchise in New Jersey. Without the vote, women attended rallies, hosted salons, created organizations aimed that helping poor women and children, and joined in reform movements that ranged from abolishing the scourge of the saloon to the sin of slavery.

(credit: Library of Congress)
(credit: Library of Congress)

Among those reform efforts was the campaign to gain the right to vote. This demand stood out for its boldness. Once states dissolved the link between property ownership and the franchise, sex and race (few states allowed property-less African-American men to vote) marked the boundaries of the right to vote. It was easy to illustrate the ridiculousness or the threat to the social order of women voting, as a Currier and Ives 1869 print (left) illustrates.

The suffrage movement divided over whether to support the 14th and 15th Amendments. Some movement stalwarts, not above contrasting themselves as educated white women against “ignorant” freedmen and immigrants, objected to the inclusion of the word “male” in new constitutional language aimed at guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote. The suffrage movement advanced, slowly. Before 1900, a state-by-state effort brought victories in a few sparsely populated western states, sometimes without suffrage agitation.

Baker_women_woodhullStill, the late 19th century produced some notable women politicos. Unable to vote for herself (and arrested for trying), Victoria Woodhull became the first woman candidate for president in 1872, running on the Equal Rights ticket. Suffragists were less than thrilled. The association between Woodhull and “free love” (right) didn’t help a movement distancing itself from radicalism.

Building on women’s work on temperance, the Prohibition Party included women at their conventions. While the Farmer’s Alliance in the West and South involved women in its activities, the Populist Party that emerged from it created fewer roles for women. Still, some of the party’s most prominent speakers and writers—most famously Mary Elizabeth Lease—were women.

In the first decade and a half of the 20th century, the women’s suffrage campaign gained momentum. Women’s participation in war work during World War I provided the occasion for President Woodrow Wilson’s support for the 19th Amendment. Women would be able to vote in the 1920 election.

In preparation, the major parties enhanced their women’s divisions, and soon women became an essential piece of the party workforce. The fear, or hope, that women voters were ready to punish legislators who were inattentive to their issues encouraged Congress to pass the Sheppard-Towner Act.

Women’s suffrage otherwise produced neither the upending of the social order nor a wave of new legislation. Gender norms proved stubborn. Filling the slot of a late husband was a woman’s most reliable path to elected office. Jury service seemed too challenging to women’s delicate sensibilities. Even some firsts fit within gender stereotypes: the first women cabinet secretaries administered agencies connected with social welfare.

The decisive break came in the 1970s. A new feminist movement made antique the assumptions that slotted political women into gender-suitable positions. A wider pipeline moved women with JDs as well as political experience into office: the first-ever non-widowed governors and a crop of new House members. Feminists such as Shirley Chisholm, Patsy Mink, and Belle Abzug built on the work of Martha Griffith and Edith Green, long-serving representatives who had advanced women’s equality.

A woman nominee of a major party would have been remarkable into the 1980s. The revived feminist movement was fresh, as were the gains it had promoted. But two things had become clear by the 1990s: women were acceptable presidential candidates, and party and ideology mattered more than gender.

Since the 1950s, a majority of Americans have claimed they could support a female presidential candidate. More recently, that number has moved closer to 90 percent. Women mayors and governors are unremarkable, a trend that’s been true for the Senate and cabinet, too. Since Margaret Chase Smith ran for the Republican nomination in 1964, lower-tier candidates for major party nominations have not been rare.

Clinton—like Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008—dealt with sexist attacks and gained some benefit from appeals to gender. Yet partisanship shapes both the attacks and appeals. Vanishingly few conservative or Republican women are likely to vote for Clinton out of solidarity, just as Palin’s spot on the ticket failed to narrow the pro-Democratic gender gap.

And that means women in politics have fully arrived.

Paula Baker is an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University.

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