Women and the US Presidency: Gains in the Pipeline and Shifts in Perception

2008 was a visibly progressive year for women in American politics. Hillary Clinton almost won the Democratic nomination for president and Sarah Palin was the Republican vice presidential candidate. The absence of women on a national party ticket in 2012 hardly means that women are losing traction in United States politics. A review of women presidential candidates from 1964-2012 shows a promising shift and the record number of women who will represent their states in the new U.S. Senate bodes well for equal representation of women in politics and the chance that a woman will become president of the United States. Elizabeth Warren will be the first woman senator to represent Massachusetts, and Mazie Hirono will be the first female U.S. senator from Hawaii and the first Asian-American woman in the Senate. Other women who won were Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin. No doubt, the path paved by previous women presidential candidates has enabled their trajectory to the halls of political power.
In 1964 Margaret Chase Smith, Republican Senator from Maine ran for president. Margaret Chase Smith wasn’t willing to neglect her work in the Senate in order to run for president. She was especially interested in the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, and much of her 1964 campaign season was spent hurrying back to Washington. Historian Janann Sherman noted: “Her refusal to leave her job or take any money made it very difficult to run a campaign.” At the time of her presidential campaign for president, Margaret Chase Smith had piled up an amazing, all time Senate record of 1,620 consecutive roll call votes. She also refused to take money! Anyone who sent her campaign contributions soon received their donation back with a kind, (often hand-written) note that stated she simply could not accept it. Without a lot of money, no one can be elected president.

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm, Democratic Congresswoman from New York identified the biggest obstacle to her presidential race in a keynote address she gave before the National Women’s Political Caucus Convention in Houston in 1973. “One of my biggest problems was that my campaign was viewed as a symbolic gesture. While I realized that my campaign was an important rallying symbol for women and that my present in the race forced the other candidates to deal with issues relating to women, my primary objective was to force people to accept me as a real, viable candidate.” She also perceptively observed that voters were more “sexist than racist.” She was a novelty candidate.

In 1988, Patricia Schroeder, Democratic Congresswoman from Colorado got in the race late after Gary Hart stepped down because of an extramarital scandal. She was barraged with questions that pointed to her gender: “Are you running as a woman?” and “Why don’t look like the president?” She admitted, “Many could not get beyond the fact that I look so different from the others.” She added: “Nobody knows what to do with a woman (candidate): “ wear earrings, don’t wear earrings, wear bright colors, don’t wear bright colors.” Her appearance was the focus of her bid.
In 1999 Elizabeth Dole, former president of the American Red Cross made an exploratory bid for the presidency. She was repeatedly described as the “first” woman running for president and descriptions of her clothing choices often preceded her stance on issues. She was also criticized for her intense preparation, and her husband Bob Dole brought negative attention to her campaign by telling the New York Times he was donating money to John McCain’s campaign. Furthermore, her ardent campaigning for her spouse, Bob Dole, over the years indelibly cast her in the eyes of the voters as the spouse of the candidate, not the candidate. Was cast in the eyes of the public as a spouse, not a candidate,

Fast forward to 2008 — Hillary Clinton almost won the Democratic nomination for president. Sarah Palin was a positively awful vice-presidential pick for McCain because she was not ready for the national stage. On a positive note, she contributed to the much needed critical mass of women, even if her performance was poor. But no one doubted that Hillary Clinton was presidential in her 2008 bid and that she could have won. In her announcement speech she made it clear when she said, ”I’m in. And I’m in to win.” With these words, she told the world that she wasn’t just paving the way for more women to come forward in the future and run for president. She was determined to win and she didn’t back down until it was clear that Barack Obama won the nomination. Still her candidacy was non-symbolic and important in a number of ways. Hillary Clinton demonstrated powerful intellect, toughness in the face of harsh media scrutiny and ridicule, extraordinary stamina and perseverance. If she runs in 2016 she will be formidable.
In 2012, after Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann came in near the bottom of the Iowa caucus, winning only5 percent of the vote, she suspended her campaign, conceding that “the people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice, and so I have decided to stand aside.” Her campaign, which suffered when the candidate misquoted historical facts and made the claim that the HPV vaccine can lead to mental retardation, also faced some of the barriers that other women in pursuit of the presidency have faced. Her appearance and motherhood were often the focus of press coverage, but her performance in debates and in interviews, was consistently strong.

So while there were no women on a national ticket in 2012, a forty plus year retrospective and a closer look at the campaigns of the women of 2008 and 2012 reveals a positive shift from symbolic to viable. And the gains of senate seats held by women bolsters the critical mass needed to elect a woman as president.

Nichola D. Gutgold is associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Lehigh Valley and author of a number of books and articles on women’s rhetoric, including three on women and the United States Presidency.

45 Responses to “Women and the US Presidency: Gains in the Pipeline and Shifts in Perception”

  1. November 11, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Nichola, thank you for this essay. I found your blog by doing a search for “mccaskill warren for president vice president 2016.”

    Secretary Clinton has been remarkable in her role as Secretary of State. I was a supporter of her 2008 run for the presidency. However, I detected early in her campaign that she did not have the effective grassroots organizing operation that (now) President Obama did in both his 2008 and his 2012 campaigns.

    As a resident of both Kansas City, Missouri and Alexandria, Virginia I have long been aware of Sen. McCaskill’s drive to get things done in the Senate. Elizabeth Warren will likely have similar strong abilities.

    We have been electing American presidents for all of two centuries and parts of two more centuries. When i wander through the National Portrait Gallery and consider they all have been men, I know we have to change that.

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