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A Brief Chronology of Women’s Strive for the White House

With the recent historical election of Kamala Harris as the first woman, first Black person, and first Indian American as the Vice President of the United States, I thought it would be a worthwhile effort to pay homage to America’s long history of women vying for a spot in the White House. While much of this history goes unnoted in school classes, it is important for every American to know, regardless of gender or political affiliations. 

Victoria Woodhull

While over 200 women have made efforts towards leading the executive branch, the first one to ever do it was Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Woodhull announced her presidential campaign in 1870, 50 years before women were granted suffrage with the 19th Amendment. Not only that, but in 19th century America women were not even allowed to go to any restaurant or store without a man by their side, so the idea of one becoming the Commander in Chief was a radical notion. Eventually Woodhull was nominated by the Equal Rights Party, running on a platform of women’s rights and sexual freedom. She believed women should have a say in who their spouse was and have the right to divorce them as well, which garnered her severe backlash from the press who likened her to the devil on multiple occasions. Although Woodhull never appeared on any ballot, her campaign for president will go down as historic and iconic. 

Margaret Chase Smith

In 1964, the Senator from Maine known as Margaret Chase Smith, pronounced her campaign to become the Republican nominee for president, making Smith the first woman to purposefully run for the presidency for a major political party. Additionally, Smith became the first woman to hold office in both houses of Congress when she was elected to the Senate after serving as a Congresswoman for ten years in the House. Smith also became one of the first politicians to criticize the schemes of Senator Joe McCarthy and she even gave a speech to the Senate entitled a “Declaration of Conscience” against his villainization of Americans with unpopular beliefs. Apart from that, Smith also focused her work on issues of women’s rights, foreign policy, and military affairs. 

Charlene Mitchell

In July 1968, Charlene Mitchell became the first African American woman to run for president when she was nominated by the Communist party. Being both African American and a woman, Mitchell struggled to gain legitimacy in the public eye, with the press using her as an example of the Communist Party’s failure to get serious. Mitchell, however, was a force to be reckoned with. She had a lifetime of political experience joining American Youth for Democracy at the ripe age of 13 and grew up to be a vocal activist and leader for labor and the Communist Party. While she did not win the presidency, Mitchell did appear on the ballot in two states with 1,075 ballots cast in her favor, making her the first woman to receive any legitimate votes for president. Mitchell is also accredited with catalyzing the Black feminism movement that propelled several Black women to run for and win public office between the 1960s and 1970s. Currently, Mitchell is working with the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. 

Shirley Chisholm

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm became the first black presidential candidate for a major political party as well as the first woman to campaign for the Democratic nomination. Even before that, Chisholm was elected the first African American woman to serve in the House of Representatives in 1968, running on a campaign centered around race and gender. Although Chisholm had a long-established career in politics, she was inhibited from partaking in the presidential primary debates and was only permitted to make one speech. Despite facing racism, sexism, and depleting funds, Chisholm was able to collect 152 delegate votes in the Democratic primaries, which is 10% of the total. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton

In 2008, after serving two terms in the U.S. Senate,  Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential candidate to appear on the ballot in all 50 states and the first woman to beat out a male candidate in a presidential primary when she won the New Hampshire primary. She is also the first and only First Lady to hold public office. While she eventually lost out the Democratic primary to Barack Obama, he later appointed her as Secretary of State and just a few years later she became the Democratic presidential nominee defeating Trump in the 2016 popular vote, although ultimately losing the presidency. 

Although I was familiar with some of these women before, I definitely did not know their political histories to this extent, so I hope these brief biographies allow you to appreciate how far women have come in American politics and how truly revolutionary Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris’ victory is. 

Leela Rajeev

Stony Brook '22

Hello, I love writing and watching Netflix!
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