Not So Unimaginable: Women and the White House

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By Ellen Gilbert 

“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it” 

— HILLARY CLINTON TOLD SUPPORTERS WHEN SHE DROPPED OUT OF THE RACE FOR THE 2008 DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION. IT’S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER, THOUGH, THAT OTHER WOMEN WERE STIRRING THINGS UP QUITE A LONG TIME AGO.

VICTORIA WOODHULL

The distinction of being the first woman Presidential aspirant belongs to the feisty Victoria Woodhull, who ran for the office in 1872 when another woman named Victoria was most assuredly alreadyruling Britannia.

Since this was almost 50 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in the United States, Woodhull was unable to vote for herself that year. At least two other facts were decidedly not in her favor, notes Politico.com’s Carol Felsenthal. On inauguration day that year she would have been just 34 years old, and Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution requires that the president be 35 on the day “he” takes office. The second consideration is that she happened to be incarcerated on Election Day (and for a month or so after) in New York City’s Ludlow Street Jail on obscenity charges for writing an article about an adulterous love affair between Henry Ward Beecher, a powerful minister, and a parishioner just days before the election.

Still, it was a first and also of no small note is the fact that Woodhull’s running mate was Frederick Douglass, the first African-American ever nominated for vice-president. “On paper,” notes Felsenthal, “it was an impressive pick, but not really: Douglass never appeared at the party’s nominating convention, never agreed to run with Woodhull, never participated in the campaign and actually gave stump speeches for [incumbent President] Grant.”

Some of the issues Woodhull championed would be familiar to contemporary voters: she supported labor unions, workers’ rights (including an eight-hour workday), “equal pay for equal work, help for working mothers, an end to spousal abuse, better public education, legal aid to the poor, opposition to capital punishment, tax reform, sex education in schools, and social welfare programs aimed at ending poverty.”

Certain aspects of Woodhull’s long and colorful career are complicated. She worked not only as a women’s rights advocate, but as a stockbroker, newspaper editor, and, it was rumored, prostitute. “She was controversial and polarizing,” observes Time writer Erin Blakemore. She took a stand against abortion, but supported eugenics.

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“VOTE FOR GRACIE”

For sheer comic relief during this particularly contentious campaign season nothing beats the story of comedienne Gracie Allen’s 1940 run for president. A Surprise Party candidate, her platform (“redwood trimmed with ‘nutty’ pine”) declared that “Congress Must Go” since “the Senate is the only show in the world where the cash customers have to sit in the balcony.” She called for “Ending Secrecy in Foreign Affairs,” because “if Charles Boyer is going around with Greta Garbo, the people are entitled to know about it.”

Gracie’s immortal campaign song (sung by Gracie herself, and featuring her husband and comedy partner George Burns adding some suggestions) can be seen on YouTube.

“REMEMBER THE LADIES”

Although not a presidential aspirant, Abigail Adams had no problem expressing her concern for women’s rights. In a letter she wrote on March 31, 1776 she reminded her husband, John, then serving as the Massachusetts representative to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. While she longed “to hear that you have declared an independence,” she made sure to point out that “in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane, has also emerged as a wonderfully compelling female presence in early American history thanks to Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages, published in 2013. “Jenny and Benny” were both passionate readers, writers (she, despite a very limited education), and observers of the political scene. Unlike her brother, though, Jane had twelve children to care for.

In reviewing Lepore’s book, NPR’s Maureen Corrigan observed, “to call it simply a biography would be like calling Ben’s experiments with electricity mere kite flying…The end product is thrilling—an example of how a gifted scholar and writer can lift the obscure out of silence.”

Benjamin Franklin’s books include, of course, The Autobiography, Poor Richard’s Almanack, and The Way to Wealth. Jane’s output was far less prodigious, though, as Lepore tells us, “she did once write a book. She stitched four sheets of foolscap between two covers to make sixteen pages…She called it her Book of Ages.” It was meant to record of the births and deaths of her children but Lepore ingeniously finds a great deal more than that “litany of grief” in it; it is, she writes, “a history of books and papers, a history of reading and writing, a history from reformation to revolution, a history of history.”

MORE WOMEN

Journalist Cokie Roberts, another NPR regular who also happens to be the sister of the late Princeton mayor, Barbara Sigmund, has also profiled important women in American history. Her books include Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868; Ladies of Liberty, and Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised our Nation.

Exuberantly illustrated young adult and children’s books that will eventually need updating include Catherine Thimmesh’s Madam President: The Extraordinary, True (and Evolving) Story of Women in Politics; Ilene Cooper’s A Woman in the House (And Senate), and Kathleen Krull’s Lives of Extraordinary Women, whimsically subtitled “Rulers, Rebels (and What the Neighbors Thought”).

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A CATALYST FOR CHANGE

“One of my heroines is Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm,” President Obama has written, adding that “she once said, ‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.’ We know that these stereotypes affect how girls see themselves starting at a very young age, making them feel that if they don’t look or act a certain way, they are somehow less worthy.”

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) was a politician, educator, and author, who, in 1968, became the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Chisholm went on to represent New York’s 12th Congressional District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. During that time she became the first African American candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, paving the way for both the African American man (President Obama) and female nominee (Secretary Clinton) who followed.

In her book Unbought and Unbossed, Chisholm described some of the challenges she faced and her determination to effect change. “She knew she couldn’t win,” observes Ilene Cooper, “but she felt strongly that the political landscape in America needed change and color.”

“When I die,” Chisholm said in a 2004 documentary, “I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be a catalyst for change.”

“You got it, Shirley,” enthuses Cooper. In 2015 Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

OTHER BIDS

Like Shirley Chisholm, Linda Jenness (b. 1941) knew she couldn’t win when she threw in her bid as the Socialist Workers Party candidate in 1972. Too young to actually be nominated in some states, Jenness shared the nomination with another female candidate, Evelyn Reed, who ran in states where Jenness did not qualify. “Though Jenness repeatedly challenged Democratic nominee George McGovern to a debate, he refused,” writes Erin Blakemore. Jenness was reported to have said, “the Socialists do not fool themselves that they have a chance of winning any major victories this year.” She did, however, receive over 83,000 votes.

Jill Stein’s presidential aspirations are probably more familiar to voters today. The American physician, activist, politician, was the Green Party’s nominee for President of the United States in 2012, and is running again in 2016. Blakemore notes that “in a raucous election year, Jill Stein’s 2012 presidential run felt more like an afterthought than a milestone. But in fact, Stein’s presidential candidacy was the most successful ever conducted by a woman.”

Stein appears to mean business again: in response to a recent Washington Post editorial that described her campaign as a “fairy tale,” Stein called the Clinton and Trump campaigns “nightmares.”

JUST THE START

History notes that Victoria Woodhull is also remembered for her campaign to raise the hemlines of women’s skirts, making it easier for them to negotiate the muddy streets of the day. “She likely couldn’t imagine a candidate for president campaigning in pastel pants suits,” quips Felsenthal. Hillary Clinton’s run is, of course, history-making, while for many it is still part of a beginning. “If Hillary wins in November 2016, it will be, of course, a huge step for women,” writes Emily’s List founder Ellen R. Malcolm in her book, When Women Win. “But we must remember that if we achieve this once-unimaginable goal…it is still just one step on a much bigger journey.”