Breaking the Glass Ceiling:  Women Candidates of the Major Parties

Two factors made it possible for women to finally become major party presidential and vice presidential candidates in the 20th century:  experience in public office and the waves of change brought about by the women’s movement. The path-breakers were Republican Margaret Chase Smith and Democrat Shirley Chisholm.  We detailed some of these achievements in our Spring 2016 exhibition “Women Take the Lead” which you can view in digital form here.

Margaret Chase Smith (1964)


By 1964 one woman could claim the same qualifications of any male candidate seeking the nomination for president:  Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith.  Of English and French-Canadian ancestry from a family of modest means in Skowhegan, Maine, and with just a high school education, she was employed in various jobs from telephone operator to newspaper circulation manager.  She joined, and was later president of, the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs of Maine, networking that would later prove of immense value in launching her political career. In 1930 she married Clyde Smith, who was 21 years older, and when he was elected to Congress in 1936 she ran his Washington office.  After his death in April 1940, she won a special election to fill her husband’s seat – the way a number of women would get their starts in office, the so-called ‘widow’s mandate.’  But Smith refused to cede to party wishes to relinquish the seat at primary time.

Smith went on to win the Republican nomination and then the election with strong support from all the women’s groups she had cultivated over the years. She served in the House from 1940 to 1948 when she easily won the primary and then the general election for the U.S Senate.  She became the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress and remained in the Senate – the only woman for many years – until defeated for re-election in 1972. While in Congress she voted for a number of Roosevelt’s New Deal and war measures, developed expertise in military matters, supported women’s involvement in the military, voted for the Equal Rights Amendment, and endorsed the creation of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. On June 1, 1950 she became famous for her “Declaration of Conscience” speech, which was the first major critique of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ongoing Communist witch hunt.  She noted “the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled” and “the right to hold unpopular beliefs.”  And finally she said, “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”


Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Chase Smith appear on Face the Nation, November 4, 1956. (MCS)


In considering a run for the presidency, Smith found herself positioned as a centrist candidate: to her right was Arizona Senator Barry Gold-water, and to her left was the liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. During discussions of her possible nomination through the fall of 1963, President Kennedy called her a “very formidable political figure.”

Her possible candidacy elicited a range of responses:  “Women are unsuited for the responsibilities of the presidency. It’s a man’s job.” “Emotions are what guide women, not sense.” “Women are fully as well qualified for the job as men.”  “Yes I’d vote for a woman…It’s not a question of sex but whether the candidate is capable.”  When asked by a reporter how she would handle international meetings, she responded, “I would call your attention to Mr. Khrushchev’s references to me through the years when he called me an amazon war monger hiding behind a rose.” In a survey of Texas third graders, about half the students wrote that they were in favor of a woman president.

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith For President. 1964. (MCS)

When Smith formally announced her candidacy on January 27, 1964, she recognized that she was facing great odds: “I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying for the finish. When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.”  She lacked the usual financial resources and campaign infrastructure  – and would not seek contributions or buy radio or TV advertising – and she intended to keep up with her Congressional duties rather than spend all her time on the campaign trail. Her campaign slogan was “There is nothing more effective than a handshake and a little conversation” and she fulfilled that mission by traveling around New Hampshire and visiting everywhere people gathered.

Margaret Chase Smith Announces Her Candidacy at the Women’s National Press Club, Washington DC, January 27, 1964. (MCS)

Margaret Chase Smith Announces Her Candidacy at the Women’s National Press Club, Washington DC, January 27, 1964. (MCS)


Letter from a supporter.

Smith lost in the primaries where she was on the ballot, in New Hampshire, Illinois, and Oregon, though she did win some pledged delegates to the Convention.  In Illinois she came in fourth with a quarter of the vote, a quarter million votes. She also won votes in Massachusetts, Texas and Oregon, even though she didn’t campaign in those states.  During this time, typical clichés were transformed such as “Tosses Bonnet in the Ring,” and a spate of political cartoons both mocked her aspirations and admired her tenacity.

The Convention

Smith was nominated by Governor George Aiken of Vermont, a former Senate colleague, at the Republican Convention in San Francisco on July 15, 1964, the first serious woman candidate to achieve that goal within a major political party. Not surprisingly, Senator Goldwater took the lion’s share of the delegates at the first roll call, 883 to Smith’s 27. When she refused to release her delegates she prevented Goldwater from receiving a unanimous nomination.  He later lost to Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, 486 electoral votes to 42.  The next day, a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote:

There is always a periphery story about a convention, and women are often in it. Wednesday one woman was no longer in the periphery. She stepped out of context and into history. She was able to do what no other woman has since this country began—be formally nominated at the national convention of a major party for the office of President. She was—as all must now know—Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, 66, of Maine.

Smith returned to the Senate to continue her work there until defeated in the 1972 election.  In spite of her loss, her campaign for president was an inspiration to many women as they began to find their voices in the first years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, the founding of NOW (National Organization for Women), and the extraordinary  growth of the women’s movement.

Margaret Chase Smith at the Republican Convention, 1964. (MCS)

Margaret Chase Smith at the Republican Convention, 1964. (MCS)

Margaret Chase Smith and Eleanor Roosevelt were the first women to appear on the influential CBS news program Face the Nation. There they discussed the issues, with civility and respect, of the 1956 campaign in the days before the election. This appearance gave Smith priceless national exposure. Here and in every picture of Smith she is wearing a red rose – a new flower daily, a habit she started while she served in the House of Representatives.

Smith’s past work for a newspaper surely informed her decision to make her presidential announcement at the Women’s National Press Club – an organization that Eleanor Roosevelt had joined, as a working journalist, and promoted by  giving press conferences to women journalists who were not allowed to be members of the (male) National Press Club.  Smith listed the reasons to run that supporters had suggested: national experience on a par with male candidates, breaking the barrier for women, political independence of any “machine,” and her moderate politics. She also noted some of the negatives that had been tossed about:

There are those who make the contention that no woman should ever dare to aspire to the White House, that this is a man’s world, and that it should be kept that way. … It is contended that I should not run for president because the odds are too heavily against me for even the most remote chance of victory….it is contended that, as a woman, I would not have the physical stamina and strength to run. … For were I to run, it would be under severe limitations with respect to lack of money, lack of organization, and lack of time because of the requirements to be on the job in Washington doing my elected duty instead of abandoning those duties to campaign.” And then she surprised and delighted her audience by concluding, “So because of these very impelling reasons against my running, I have decided that I shall enter the New Hampshire preferential primary and the Illinois primary.

Shirley Chisholm (1972)



Shirley Chisholm could claim a lot of firsts: first African-American woman elected to Congress, first Black candidate for a major party presidential nomination, and first woman to be placed in nomination by the Democratic Party. She was born in Brooklyn to parents who had emigrated from the Caribbean. As a child, she lived in Barbados for several years, then returned to New York for high school, graduating from Brooklyn College in 1946. She worked in early childhood education as a teacher and consultant and became active in local politics beginning in the late 1950s.  In 1964 she was elected to the New York State Assembly and worked on legislation to help low-income workers and students.

In 1968 Chisholm ran for Congress from the Twelfth Congressional District centered on Bedford-Stuyvesant but also including parts of Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Bushwick. The population was 70%  Black and Puerto Rican, and 80% of its voters registered as Democrats.  She won her primary contest against two male opponents, and then beat the African-American Republican candidate, civil rights leader James Farmer.  Her win made her the first African-American woman in the House (and Congress), a bit more than 20 years after Adam Clayton Powell Jr had become the first African-American elected from New York City. While first upset at being appointed to the Agriculture Committee, she took full advantage of that appointment when a constituent suggested she use her position to direct surplus food to women and children. She accomplished this by expanding the food stamp program and also creating WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).  In 1971 she co-founded both the Black Congressional Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus.


On January 25, 1972, Chisholm announced her candidacy at a Brooklyn Baptist Church. She said:

I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that….. I am the candidate of the people of America, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history. I have faith in the American people. I believe that we are smart enough to correct our mistakes. I believe that we are intelligent enough to recognize the talent, energy, and dedication, which all Americans including women and minorities have to offer. I know from my travels to the cities and small towns of America that we have a vast potential, which can and must be put to constructive use in getting this great nation together… I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not right or because she is not a male. I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans will continue to harbor such narrow and petty prejudice… Instead of calculating political cost of this or that policy, and of weighing in favors of this or that group, depending on whether that group voted for me in 1968, I would remind all Americans at this hour of the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘A house divided, cannot stand’ … Join me in an effort to reshape our society and regain control of our destiny as we go down the Chisholm Trail for 1972.


January 25, 1972, Chisholm announces her candidacy at a Brooklyn Baptist Church. (BC)

Chisholm, like Margaret Chase Smith, lacked adequate funding for the campaign, but managed to get on the ballot for 17 primaries and won New Jersey’s.  She had support from the National Organization for Women as well as many activists including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. She had to go to the U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn an FCC (Federal Communications Commission) ruling that did not require the major networks to provide equal time to all candidates in the primaries. Thus she was able to join leading Democratic candidates George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey, and a representative of George Wallace (recovering from an assassination attempt), on an ABC television news program, “Issue and Answers,” on June 4. By 1972 it was clear that prime time exposure was critical; without it she would remain unknown to millions of people.  Overall, she received more than 430,000 primary votes and won 28 delegates. But at the Democratic convention in Miami Beach, she ended up with a total of 152 first ballot votes as a result of shifting alliances. George McGovern won the Democratic nomination but lost to Richard Nixon in the general election.

Chisholm’s concern for economic equity, racial equality, and government programs to improve individual lives, families and communities, linked her to the achievements of Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson, and foretold the concerns of many groups today. A woman of her own time, she also supported women’s reproductive rights and opposed the war in Vietnam. Her call for independence – her refusal to be beholden to corporate or other special interests – was captured in her signature slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” and remains an essential tenet of presidential campaigns to this day.

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First National Candidates of Major Parties

Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011)

Geraldine Ferraro went to college, taught for a few years, went to law school – one of two women in her 1960 class of 179 – and then married and had three children. She returned to legal work in 1973 as an Assistant District Attorney in Queens, working in the special victims’ bureau.  Intermittently involved with local politics, she ran and was elected to the House of Representatives from the Ninth Congressional District in New York in 1978. She co-sponsored the Economic Equity Act to benefit women and became a member of the Democratic Party’s leadership group. She attributed her appointment as Chairwoman of the 1984 Democratic Platform Committee to the support of many Democratic women in Congress and in national organizations.  The idea of a woman for the vice-presidential slot was in the air with the growing number of high profile elected officials like Representative Patricia Schroeder of Colorado and Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco. With pressure from NOW (National Organization for Women), the Democrats selected her to be the Vice Presidential candidate – and first woman on a major party ticket – with Senator Walter Mondale, the presidential nominee, for her qualifications and with the hope that she would attract the women’s vote.  At the convention she declared “If we can do this, we can do anything.”  During the campaign she encountered sexist remarks and attacks against her husband’s business.  She and Mondale were defeated handily by the Republican incumbent ticket of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  Yet for many years afterward, she heard from girls and women that she had inspired them in their careers and political aspirations.  When she died, the New York Times obituary read: “She Ended the Men’s Club of National Politics.”

Sarah Palin (1964- )

Sarah Palin grew up in Alaska and after graduation from college, worked in radio, married, and had children. She was elected to the Wasilla City Council and then elected mayor of the town several times. Always a Republican, she was appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission where she became better known in the state, setting the stage for her successful run for Governor in 2006. She was the first woman, and the youngest person, to hold that office. She was extremely popular even though she was as critical of Republican officials as of Democrats, and became an attractive candidate to the national Republican Party for her youth, unusual background, and gender.  Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, asked her to be the vice-presidential candidate, making her the second woman in that position, and first Republican, in 2008.  The ticket was defeated by another path-breaking candidate for president, Barack H. Obama.  Palin remains active in politics and the media, and published her autobiography, Going Rogue: An American Life, in 2009.

Hillary Clinton (1947- )

Hillary Clinton came of age when women’s career choices expanded exponentially. Following graduation from Wellesley in 1969, she went to Yale Law School as the enrollment of women surged in that field. After working in Congress, she married Bill Clinton, moved to Arkansas, where she co-founded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and practiced law. She was immersed in state and national politics when she became the First Lady of Arkansas, while her husband was Governor (1983-1992), and then the First Lady of the United States while he was president (1993-2001).  During the latter years she worked on health care programs and family issues, famously declaring at the United Nations Congress on Women in 1995, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”  Clinton was elected Senator from New York in 2000, the first woman to hold that position from the state, and re-elected in 2006. She made a strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 but was overtaken by Illinois Senator Barack Obama. When he was elected, he made her Secretary of State (2009-2013). Clinton ran during the primary season of 2015-16 and overcame a strong campaign by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. She received the Democratic presidential nomination on July 27, 2016, the first woman to hold that position for a major party.

Postscript: Clinton lost the general election, garnering the greater popular vote but not enough electoral votes to win. The glass ceiling remains unbroken for the highest office in the United States.

Campaign Media – Old and New

Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin T-shirts, c.2008, in the exhibition (RH).

Her Hat Was In the Ring! Wendy E. Chmielewski, Jill Norgren, and Kristen Gwinn-Becker

Her Hat Was In the Ring! An online website of women who ran for public office prior to 1920. Wendy E. Chmielewski, Jill Norgren, and Kristen Gwinn-Becker.

Campaigns continue to use a mix of old and new media.  What could be more 19th century than campaign buttons? What could be more 20th century than t-shirts? And what is more 21st century than websites?

Digital media changed too. Social media has been widely deployed during the current campaigns and websites still play a key role.  When women’s history emerged out of the women’s movement, historians retrieved a missing past in articles, exhibitions, books, films, and websites. The website “Her Hat Was In the Ring! U.S. Women Who Ran for Political Office Before 1920” identifies thousands of women who held office at every level of local, state and national government well before all American women gained the right to vote. What is more thrilling than to see today’s candidates in the long line of their foremothers whose ranks filled out in the 20th century with Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro, and many others in government?  In the 21st century, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton achieved nominations for the highest posts in the land, while so many more women have been elected to posts in city and state government as well as to Congress, and been appointed to the Cabinet and the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the women’s movement inspired new images of women it influenced everything from toys to television and film. Children’s toys changed. Even as stereotypical a brand as the Barbie dolls would move with the times.  The first Barbie for President in the early 1990s looked just like all the other Barbie dolls. But by 2000 she had acquired a more professional appearance with a suit and inaugural gown. By 2012, probably influenced by First Lady Michelle Obama, she was African American. Women appeared on television and in films as fictional vice-presidents and presidents.  And finally, in 2016, a woman became the candidate for president of a major party, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Women Aspire to be President

After Margaret Chase Smith and Shirley Chisholm, the idea of a woman running for high office – as a candidate for a major party – did not seem so far-fetched. Geraldine Ferraro was the first to come across the finish line as a vice presidential nominee in 1984.  With women accumulating more experience as mayors, governors, legislators, and members of the cabinet, on a par with their male colleagues, they gained credibility with voters and the major political parties.  In a truly historic contest in 2008, Hillary Clinton came down to the wire in the Democratic primaries, bested by the first African-American candidate of a major party, Barack Obama, who did indeed become president.  The same election cycle, seeing the rising tide for women candidates – and the gender gap among voters – the Republicans made Sarah Palin their vice presidential nominee. Fast forward to 2016 and Hillary Clinton became the first female major party nominee for president.

This chart shows that since Victoria Woodhull in 1872, 144 years ago, numerous women have run for president, on minor or third party lines. They’ve offered different options to voters and highlighted issues from prohibition to saving the environment, from eliminating racism to libertarian ideals. In the 2016 campaign, the Green Party fielded Jill Stein as its candidate.