From 1964-2008 Women’s Presidential History is nothing short of inspiring

Gail Collins has written another must-read book.  Her latest, When Everything Changed has been described as a “rousing epic” and a “monumental work.”  I not only agree with those descriptions, I want to add that the book is an affirmation of the progress of women in the United States and it is nothing short of inspirational.  As I prepared a brief talk I’ll be giving today at Penn State Lehigh Valley for Women’s History Month, it occurred to me that the progress for women in general in the United States is parallel to the progress that women as presidential candidates have experienced. 

In 1964 Margaret Chase Smith ran for president.  Here are some lyrics to a campaign song that was written for her:   

“We want a woman in the White House, we want some hist’ry to be made….To    make the country hustle, give Uncle Sam a bustle, and make the Gen’ral Staff the ladies aid. We want a woman with some know-how…Someone to carry on the   fight….She’d eliminate a war and be home again by four, she’s a woman and a  woman’s always right. She has a secret weapon that would cast a peaceful spell.   It’s “Bingo” played by Hotline with Nikita and Fidel.  Evacuate the Pentagon; On this we’re standing pat….But leave the building standing and we’ll put in a   laundromat. ”

Could you imagine a campaign song  for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that  includes references to bingo and a laundromat?  I cannot.

  In 1972 when Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm ran for president she said, in reference to her double minority status:  “People think I’m half crazy.”  Not exactly ethos-enhancing rhetoric, as I tell my CAS students.  And it didn’t get much better with the other campaigns that women led:  in 1988 Pat Schroeder was much derided for her tear-laden withdrawal speech, drawing consternation from women and men who said, essentially, “See!  Women are just too soft to run the country!”  In 2000 Elizabeth Dole was widely described as “the first serious woman presidential candidate”  but dropped out when she realized that she simply could not compete financially with George W. Bush and Steve Forbes.   Her campaign message was a conflict of acknowledging the historic nature of a woman president, with the slogan “Let’s Make History” and disconnecting with younger women who could not appreciate Dole’s achievements in the starchy 1950s as one of only a handful of women at Harvard.  Rhetorically, her Oprah-syle feminine rhetoric was at odds with the masculinity-centric United States presidency.  In 2004 the ebullient, but under-funded and supported Carol Moseley Braun failed to launch as the only woman in a sea of Democratic hopefuls.  Every one of these women were symbolic presidential candidates.  

Enter Hillary Clinton in 2008.  She almost won.  No one doubted her toughness.  She moved from a feminine to a masculine style of communication with ease.  I call it rhetorical elasticity.  In the short span of 44 years (my lifetime exactly) women went from being symbolic presidential candidates to bona fide contenders.   

It is worth noting that “everything has changed” for women presidential candidates in the United States.   The trick is to keep the momentum moving forward.

Nichola Gutgold is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley and author of Almost Madam President:  Why Hillary Clinton ‘won’ in 2008. 

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