Cracking the Glass Ceiling Before Clinton: Women Who Ran for the Presidency

Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to become the presumptive presidential nominee of a major political party. But the first woman to try for the White House ran 144 years ago. Here are some of Clinton's female predecessors, who in seeking the presidential nomination, one by one splintered the glass ceiling that Clinton would eventually break.

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Shirley Chisholm, left, and Margaret Chase Smith
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When Victoria Woodhull sought the nomination women did not yet have the right to vote. It would be another 48 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. But this early suffragist, born in 1838 and married for the first time in her teens, became a leader in promoting labor reform. In 1868 Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin, pictured together above, moved to New York, where they became spiritual advisers to railroad millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt and began a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. When she ran for president in 1872, Woodhull was too young to seek the office. On Inauguration Day, she was just 34 years old, one year shy of the constitutionally required age to hold the office. Yet she won support from trade unions and supporters of women's suffrage. At the nominating convention, escaped slave and prominent abolitionist Fredrick Douglas was named her running mate though according to Politico he never appeared at the convention, never agreed to run with Woodhull and never participated in the campaign. Woodhull was heavily criticized for supporting the "free love" lifestyle. Shortly before election day she published stories about the sexual exploits of prominent political leaders and was arrested and tried for sending obscene information through the mail. She spent election night in prison.
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(Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
During a broadcast of the Burns and Allen show on Feb. 7, 1940, comedian Gracie Allen announced she would run for the White House. Robert Easton, who worked with Burns and Allen on the show told NPR that at the time her candidacy was seen as a publicity stunt, a way to bring levity to the nation in the midst of the Great Depression and on the brink of World War II. But her campaign took off. She had an official nominating convention in May, broadcast on the Burns and Allen Show, and received the endorsement of Harvard University students. Allen had a campaign platform as well as buttons and posters that she distributed at stump speeches across the country. Shortly after the convention, however, she dropped out of the race, saying it was time to focus on more serious candidates, Easton told NPR. Franklin D. Roosevelt would go on to win a third term but Allen reportedly received thousands of write-in votes. In a book she published about her campaign later that year, Allen said: “no matter what people say about them, or what they say about each other, candidates are human beings, and we need them.”
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Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to run in a major party primary. But Smith was no stranger to firsts. She was the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress and the first woman elected to Congress from Maine. She initially won a special election for her husband’s congressional seat following his death but was reelected and served four full terms in the House She was elected to the Senate in 1948 and by the time she campaigned for the presidency she had 24 years experience in Washington. Her supporters collected trading stamps and sold them to help pay for plane tickets to the primaries. Still, news footage shows much of the American public at the time thought the idea of a woman running for president was laughable. Television and newspaper footage from 1964 refer to Smith as tossing her “bonnet in the ring.” In a speech announcing her run Smith said: "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." Sen. Barry Goldwater won the nomination but in one of the GOP's worst general election performances in history, lost to President Lyndon Johnson.
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Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968. Born in Brooklyn, Chisholm spent much of her early life in Barbados. Her family later moved back to Brooklyn where Chisholm worked as a school teacher after college. In 1964 she was elected to the New York state legislature and in 1968, ran for Congress, decisively defeating difficult primary and general election challenges. She was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Chisholm also was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 though her presidential candidacy caused discontent among many of her male colleagues. Her official congressional biography describes her campaign as a “largely symbolic undertaking,” but she succeeded in getting her name on 12 primary ballots. In the speech declaring her candidacy, shown above, Chisholm said: “I stand before you today to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for a qualified candidate simply because he is not white or because she is not a male."
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Ellen McCormack, center, a self-described housewife and grandmother, ran for the Democratic nomination in 1976, campaigning almost entirely on the pro-life movement. According to The New York Times McCormack raised $525,580 in contributions, making her eligible for federal matching money in the primary election. Despite running on a single issue platform, she won 22 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention. McCormack ran for president again in 1980 as the Right to Life Party candidate.
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Elizabeth Dole made what was regarded as the first credible female bid for the White House, according to The New York Times. Dole served as secretary of transportation under Ronald Reagan and secretary of labor under George H.W. Bush before becoming head of the American Red Cross. Before her bid for the Republican nomination in 1999, Dole had campaigned extensively over the years for her husband, Sen. Bob Dole. She eventually dropped out of the race due to a lack of money.
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Carol Moseley Braun campaigned for the Democratic nomination, however, she entered the race late and was never able to gain traction. Before running for president, Moseley Braun represented Illinois for six years in the U.S. Senate. She later served as the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and then as the ambassador to Samoa. Though her presidential run failed, Moseley Braun made history as the Senate's first and to-date only black woman.
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After serving as a congresswoman from Minnesota for three terms, Michelle Bachmann ran for the Republican presidential nomination. Bachmann championed small government and conservative approaches to social issues, such as abortion and gay rights. She was briefly considered the Republican front-runner after securing the top spot in an Ames Straw Poll. However, Bachmann suspended her campaign after coming in sixth place with five percent of the vote in the 2012 Iowa caucus.
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