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.
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.