The drafters of the U.S. Constitution lived in an era when Western governments were run by white men. When the document outlining the American government was written in 1787, it would have been difficult to imagine that 221 years later African Americans and women would be running for any elected office, let alone the presidency.
The 2008 presidential election was not only the first time a major political party nominated an African American to the U.S. presidency, but it was the first time Americans saw a woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a viable presidential candidate. Many women paved the way for Clinton and other women in politics by overcoming stereotypes that hindered their ascension to elected office.
The women’s rights movement in the United States begins in July in Seneca Falls, New York, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott call for a convention “to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman.” In effect, Seneca Falls would become the genesis for the women’s rights movement in the United States.
At Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton presents the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, based on the American Declaration of Independence. Among the demands in the declaration is equality with men – before the law, in education and employment.
Susanna Madora Salter is elected mayor of Argonia, Kansas, becoming the first female U.S. mayor years before women received the right to vote nationwide. Women in most Kansas cities earned the right to vote just weeks before Salter’s election.
Some men nominated the 27-year-old Salter for mayor as a joke, but the joke was on them when she won the election. Newspapers from around the country covered Salter’s first city council meeting and most gave positive reviews. As news of her election traveled around the world, she received congratulations from people in France, Italy, Germany and other countries.
[ALT: Jeannette Rankin]
Jeannette Rankin, a Republican of Montana, takes her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives – the first woman to be elected to either chamber of Congress – on April 2. It would be another three years before women throughout the United States earned the right to vote.
Rankin understood the importance of engaging women’s talents and expertise to build better societies. “Men and women are like right and left hands; it doesn’t make sense not to use both,” she said.
[ALT: Hattie Caraway]
Hattie Caraway, initially appointed to fill her late husband’s Senate seat, becomes the first woman to win a Senate seat in her own right when she wins a special election. A diligent public servant who rarely made speeches, Caraway will earn the nickname “silent Hattie.”
The “gentlewoman from Arkansas” takes her responsibilities seriously and builds a reputation for integrity. A Democrat, she routinely supports President Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal legislation on behalf of veterans and organized labor.
Margaret Chase Smith greets a New Hampshire voter during the Republican presidential primary.
Smith became famous in 1950 for opposing Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign. She represented Maine in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate — the first woman to serve in both chambers — and some speculated she would be the 1952 vice-presidential candidate.
In 1964, Smith sought the presidential nomination. Although she became the first woman to be considered for the presidential nomination at a national convention, she lost to Barry Goldwater.
Democratic presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm speaks in Raleigh, North Carolina, March 1972.
Long before Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chisholm — the first black woman elected to Congress and a champion of minority rights — tried to become the first African-American and the first female president.
Chisholm struggled to get voters and the news media to take her seriously — newscaster Walter Cronkite announced candidacy saying “a new hat — rather, a bonnet — was tossed into the Democratic presidential race today.” But Chisholm ultimately earned 152 delegates before losing the nomination to George McGovern.
[ALT = Sandra Day O’Connor]
Despite a law degree from Stanford University, Sandra O’Connor was rejected by law firms because of her gender, but that did not stop her from entering politics. She was elected seat judge on an Arizona county court and later was appointed to the state’s appeals court. In 1981, President Reagan nominates O’Connor to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court as its first female justice.
On the Supreme Court, O’Connor’s pragmatism made her a consummate compromiser, turning her into the “swing” vote in many 5-4 decisions. In this role, many saw her as one of the most powerful women in the U.S. government.
Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro campaign in Oregon. The New York congresswoman, accepting the nomination, said “by choosing a woman to run for our nation’s second highest office, you sent a powerful signal to all Americans. There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement.”
Ferraro, a women’s rights activist, paraphrased John F. Kennedy: “To those who understand that our country cannot prosper unless we draw on the talents of all Americans we say ... the issue is not what America can do for women, but what women can do for America.”
When President Bush delivers his State of the Union address in January 2007, sitting behind him is the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
The speaker is next in line of succession to the presidency after the vice president and controls the flow of legislation in the House.
Pelosi, a Democrat from California, was elected to the position by the Democratic members of the House. Shortly after that election, President Bush, a Republican, said Pelosi’s ascension to the post of speaker was “historic for our country. And as the father of young women … I think it’s important.”
In June 2008, former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York, ends her bid for the U.S. presidency. Her 18 million primary votes were not enough to secure the Democratic nomination.
“Think how much progress we’ve already made.” Clinton tells her supporters. “And although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”
“… [F]rom now on it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States.”