The election held on November 3, 2020, was an auspicious one for women. The United States elected our first woman, and first woman of color, to executive office with Senator Kamala Harris set to become Vice President, and a record-breaking number of women were elected to Congress. In January, 140 women will be seated in the 117th Congress, surpassing the prior record set last year of 127 women and including an unprecedented number of Republican women. While this is still a far cry from complete gender parity, it is still a moment to celebrate and reflect on the history of women elected to national office.
Even before women could vote, women ran for elected office—including president. Almost 50 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, stockbroker and newspaper publisher Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president in 1872 under the Equal Rights Party ticket. Despite questions about their eligibility to vote, she reasoned women could still could run for political office. A lawyer who was the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, Belva Lockwood followed shortly in 1884, endorsing equal rights, temperance, civil service reform, and citizenship for Native Americans. Lockwood’s name was the first to be printed on a presidential ballot, and she won around 4,000 votes—an astounding figure when we consider that Lockwood herself could not even vote.
Women in several states were granted suffrage before ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Montana sent the first woman to Congress—Jeannette Rankin—even before women could vote in much of the nation, and had amended its state constitution in 1914 to give women voting rights. (Native American women were excluded from the franchise.) Representative Rankin, an ardent suffragist and pacifist who had worked as a social worker before running for office, was elected in 1916, noting “I may be the first woman member of Congress. But I won’t be the last.”
The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 removed sex as a barrier to the vote. This was an expansive political step, representing years of work. Even so, many women—especially women of color—still could neither vote nor exercise other aspects of citizenship. Yet women continued to push for political inclusion—including running for office. For example, Charlotta Bass, a civic leader and newspaper publisher from Los Angeles, became the first Black woman to run for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952.
For many, however, the promise of the 19th Amendment was not fulfilled for almost a half century after its ratification. The 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed poll taxes, prohibited literacy tests, and allowed women of color, with federal assistance, to freely participate in the voting process for the first time. Across the country, women harnessed the skills they had honed in civil rights and women’s organizations to run for office. Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, made bids for seats in the statehouse and Congress. Patsy Takemoto Mink, a Japanese-American attorney and political activist from Hawaii, and Shirley Chisholm, a Brooklyn educator, had historic campaign victories for seats in Congress during the 1960s. Both also sought the U.S. presidency in 1972, with Chisholm winning a good share of the delegate count before withdrawing her nomination at the Democratic National Convention. LaDonna Harris became the first Native American woman to run for vice president, with her 1980 campaign on behalf of the Citizens Party.
Representative Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for national office by a major political party when Democratic nominee Walter Mondale announced her selection as his running mate in 1984. Several decades passed before another woman was nominated by her party for executive office. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was tapped by Republican Party to be the vice presidential nominee in 2008, and former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton broke a significant glass ceiling by securing the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2016. Building off the momentum of women’s increasing activism, especially related to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, the 2018 midterm and now 2020 elections have broken new records for the number of women running for national office.
As we celebrate the electoral victories women made in this recent election, we are also sobered by the realization that even despite breaking new ground, women still only hold about a quarter of the seats in either the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate. At a recent women’s history salon, I sat down with historians Leandra Zarnow and Stacie Taranto, editors of a new collection, Suffrage at 100: Women in Politics since 1920 to discuss the history of women’s engagement in political life as well as the barriers women face. They convincingly argue that an “enduring male political citizenship ideal” persists in American culture. Many discussions about increasing women’s representation in political office have emphasized women’s differences, including a perspective more attuned to the needs of children and families. This leads to a predicament in which the electorate expects women’s expertise to be limited, and not broad enough to cover other issues on the agenda—especially those issues that are seen as more traditionally in the wheelhouse of men—like foreign policy or the economy.
For example, despite being a successful teacher, lawyer, and congresswoman, Geraldine Ferraro often referred to herself as “a housewife from Queens.” During the vice presidential debate when Ferraro faced sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush, Ferraro forcefully met Bush’s attempt to portray her as inexperienced on foreign policy stating, “I almost resent Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” Articles questioned whether America was “ready” for a woman vice president during the 1984 campaign, a persistent refrain that has followed women in politics vying for executive office to this day. In a 2018 poll, nearly half of respondents believed that “there were fewer women than men” in political office because Americans were not “ready to elect a woman to higher office.”
As Kamala Harris and the newly elected women of the 117th Congress take office in January, we will see if they continue to face the same challenges, or if their record-breaking victories open new doors for more women to join their ranks.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History
Top image: Detail of group portrait of the 65th Congress, 1918. Rep. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to national office, is in the middle. Library of Congress.