In July of 1871, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to seek the American presidency. “I am well aware,” she admitted, “that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset.” Right she was. None other than Harriet Beecher Stowe wondered at the sort of “brazen tramp of a woman” who’d seek the presidency. Men running for the office get “mauled, pummeled, and covered with dirt by every filthy paper all over the country,” she wrote, predicting that a woman would face far worse. Would a woman who could survive such an onslaught, she asked, be the “kind of a woman that we would want to see at the head of our government?”
Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick reminds us of Stowe v. Woodhull in The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency. With Hillary Clinton having now become the first woman in American history to effectively clinch the presidential nomination of a major party, we asked Fitzpatrick to reflect on the moment. Her thoughts:
Throughout the presidential primary season Hillary Clinton has been disparaged for raising the prospect that, if elected, she would make history as the first woman to reach the American presidency. That’s pandering, her critics insist, and inserting gender into a contest that ought to be sex blind given the momentous stakes involved in choosing a Commander-in-Chief. Whatever Clinton’s merits or deficiencies as a candidate, such a perspective ignores the extraordinary milestone she has reached. The history of women’s efforts to attain the presidency abundantly illustrates the enormous obstacles that stood in the way of every single female candidate who preceded her. As Clinton moves towards her likely nomination as the first female standard bearer of a major political party, it is worth pausing as a country to mark this landmark in our history as a democratic society.
Earlier this year, Fitzpatrick discussed that history with PBS NewsHour in a segment you can watch below.