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The Long Road to Putting a Woman in the White House

By Jill Norgren
4/1/2016 • American History Magazine

It would take 44 years after American women won the vote in 1920 for a major party to seriously consider nominating a woman presidential candidate. And it would be another 44 before a woman could be called a legitimate contender for the highest office in the land.

Republicans made history in 1964 when Margaret Chase Smith was among the party’s potential nominees. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1940 to fill the unexpired term of her late husband, Smith went on to serve four more terms in the House and four in the Senate. She came to national prominence in 1950 when, in a speech on the Senate floor, she denounced the “fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear” campaigns being waged by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The party’s eventual 1964 nominee, “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater, was trounced by Lyndon Johnson in the general election.

In 1972 Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, became the first black woman to seek the nomination of a major party. Running as a Democrat under the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed,” Chisholm finished fourth in a field of 20 candidates at the party’s convention. The nomination went to George McGovern who lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide.

The most notable presidential hopefuls since Chisholm were Democrat Pat Schroeder in 1988, Republican Elizabeth Dole in 2000 and Democrat Carol Moseley Braun in 2004. All three had long records of public service, and Dole had already held two Cabinet positions—Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Labor under George H.W. Bush.

Schroeder, Dole and Moseley Braun all dropped out before the primaries; in part because of the difficulty they had raising campaign funds. But their candidacies indicated that public opinion was changing. It was only a matter of time until a woman had a real chance at becoming president of the United States.

Enter Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2008. Clinton has advanced further than any other woman in a presidential contest and, with Sen. Barack Obama, was one of two history-making candidates who vied for the 2008 Democratic nomination.

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