Executive Branch

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The Presidency

As six women entered the field of Democratic presidential candidates in 2019, the political media rushed to declare 2020 a new "year of the woman." The excited tone projected by the media carried an air of inevitability: after Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, despite receiving 2.8 million more popular votes than her opponent, even more women were running for the presidency. 

There is a reason, however, why historical inevitability has not yet been fully realized. While many were excited to see more than one woman featured in the presidential debates this cycle, the media's focus on this "broken milestone" masks the structural inequalities in our political system that heavily favor men at every level of government. Overwhelming evidence suggests that women continue to face an uphill battle in U.S. political life, and until we fix the rules of the game, the outcome will not change. 

The following text, "Women and the Presidency," presents a complete history of women running for the highest executive offices, the structural barriers they faced, and our theory of change for rebalancing the equation. This text also appears in a new book, The Best Candidate: Presidential Nomination in Polarized Times (September 2020), which is now available for purchase


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Milestones and Candidate Firsts for the Presidency and Vice Presidency

  • 1848 - Lucretia Mott (LP) was the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for executive office (VP) by the Liberty Party
  • 1872 - Victoria Woodhull (ERP) was the first woman to run for President and receive a party nomination with the Equal Rights Party, though some dispute this, as she was only 33 at the time of her nomination, and the U.S. Constitution mandates that the president be at least 35 years old
  • 1884 - Belva Lockwood (ERP) was the next woman named as the presidential nominee for the Equal Rights Party. Her running mate, Marietta Stow, was also a woman
  • 1920 - Laura Clay (D) and Cora Wilson Stewart (D) were the first women to seek a major party's nomination, they were also the first women to run after the passage of the 19th Amendment 
  • *1956 - Eleanor Roosevelt (D) and Margaret Chase Smith (R) participated in the first televised presidential debate as surrogates for Adlai Stevenson (D) and Dwight Eisenhower (R)
  • 1964 - Margaret Chase Smith (R) was the first woman to run for the Republican presidential nomination, and was a sitting U.S. Senator at the time
  • 1968 - Charlene Mitchell (CP) was the first African American woman to run for president; she was nominated by the Communist Party
  • 1972 - Theodora "Tonie" Nathan (L) was the first woman to receive an electoral college vote as a VP candidate and Libertarian 
  • 1972 - Shirley Chisholm (D), Patsy Mink (D), and Bella Abzug (D) each vied for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination; by the time of the convention, only Chisholm and Mink remained. This event constitutes a milestone as it was the first time multiple women sought a major party's nomination at the same time. And a woman has sought a major party's nomination for the presidency or vice presidency in every election cycle since. 
    • Shirley Chisholm was also the first African-American woman to seek a major party's presidential nomination
    • Patsy Mink, who is perhaps best known for having a hand in Title IX, also holds the distinction of being the first Asian-American woman to seek a major party's presidential nomination
  • 1976 - Ellen McCormack (D) became the first woman presidential candidate to receive secret service protection during her campaign 
  • 1984 - Geraldine Ferraro (D) became the first woman to win the VP nomination of a major party; she received 13 electoral votes
  • 1988 - Lenora Fulani (NAP) became the first African-American woman and first woman presidential candidate to gain ballot access in all 50 states; she was backed by the New Alliance Party and her running mate was Joyce Dattner
  • 2008 - Sarah Palin (R) was the VP nominee for the Republican Party; she received 173 electoral votes and thus broke Ferraro's record 
  • 2012; 2016 - Jill Stein (G) received the second- and third-most votes of all women presidential candidates in a general election, in 2016 and 2012 respectively. Hillary Clinton received the highest number of votes in 2016
  • 2016 - Hillary Clinton (D) became the first woman presidential nominee of a major party and the first woman to win the popular vote in a presidential election. She received over 65 million popular votes and 227 electoral votes
  • 2020 - Tulsi Gabbard (D), Kristen Gillibrand (D), Kamala Harris (D), Amy Klobuchar (D), Elizabeth Warren (D), and Marianne Williamson (D); for the first time in history, six women declared their candidacies for the presidency in the same electoral cycle, and vied for the Democratic Party's nomination
  • 2021 - Kamala Harris (D) became the nation's first woman Vice President, as well as the first African American and Asian American VP in the history of the United States. On November 19, 2021, she also became the first woman to temporarily have acting powers of President.

The Cabinet

After the President and Vice President, members of the President's Cabinet constitute some of the most powerful leaders in the United States. But since Cabinet positions are appointed and not elected, it is up to the President to ensure that their Cabinet is diverse and representative. While 15 countries currently meet or exceed gender parity on their Executive Cabinets, the United States is still far from achieving this goal. Appointing a gender-balanced cabinet is one of the fastest ways that the United States can achieve greater gender-based representation. 




The below graph lists all women that have been appointed to Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions from FDR to Biden. There has been a steady increase over the past century, with a peak of 19 total women being appointed during Obama's presidency. 

infogram_0_cfc92f77-4b32-4575-b45c-edbb21f2d3acCopy: 2020 Congressional Representation By Seat Type - Pie Charthttps://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?QZvtext/javascript

To learn more about the history of gender diversity in Presidential Cabinets, take a look through our timeline below.


For more information on women in Presidential Cabinets: Center for American Women and Politics and Gender on the Ballot

After the governor, members of the governor's cabinet constitute some of the most powerful leaders at the state level in the United States. In nearly all states, the vast majority, if not all, of the cabinet members are appointed by the governor. In these states, the average state cabinet has a membership of less than 40% women. While 10 states currently meet or exceed gender parity on their cabinets, most states are still far from achieving this goal. Appointing a gender-balanced cabinet is one of the fastest ways that the states can achieve greater gender-based representation.

See below for a map of the gender make up of state cabinets.

infogram_0__/qgEtNPzj19iTQ9vf9EJSGender Cabinetshttps://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?EpBtext/javascript

States With No Cabinet (5)

Georgia, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas

Unavailable Data (5)

Illinois, Iowa, New York, Rhode Island, Wyoming

One way achieve gender balance is to elect more women as governors. In our analysis, women governors tended to be more mindful of gender equity: half of all women governors had gender balanced cabinets, compared to less than a quarter of men governors.


Note: Analysis excluded states without cabinets (5), where data was unavailable (5), and where all cabinet members were elected (1).

infogram_0_b1a0d768-b33b-4e90-a1ef-bf4e6b5f6d62Gender Balanced Cabinet Draft 2https://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?DyQtext/javascript

It’s been over a century since the 19th Amendment was passed, but the promise of equality has still not been met. While state cabinet positions often lack the press coverage and glamor of national office, the decisions made by people in these positions impact our daily lives. Over the next few decades, let’s ensure that women have an equal seat in the room where it happens.