History of Women Running for President of the United States

Seal of the President of the United States on a flag

michaklootwijk/Getty Images

The history of women running for president in the United States spans 140 years, but only in the last five years has a female candidate been taken seriously as a viable contender or come within reach of a major party nomination.

Victoria Woodhull — Wall Street's First Female Broker

The first woman to run for President of the United States was something of an anomaly since women did not yet have the right to vote — and wouldn't earn it for another 50 years. In 1870, 31-year-old Victoria Woodhull had already made a name for herself as Wall Street's first female stockbroker when she announced she would run for President in the New York Herald. According to her 1871 campaign bio written by fellow reformer Thomas Tilton, she did so "mainly for the purpose of drawing public attention to the claims of woman to political equality with man."

Concurrent with her presidential campaign, Woodhull also published a weekly newspaper, rose to prominence as a leading voice in the suffrage movement and launched a successful speaking career. Nominated by the Equal Rights Party to serve as their candidate, she went up against the incumbent Ulysses S. Grant and Democratic nominee Horace Greeley in the 1872 election. Unfortunately, Woodhull spent Election Eve behind bars, charged with using the U.S. mails to "utter obscene publication," namely to distribute her newspaper's exposé of the infidelities of prominent clergyman Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and the indiscretions of Luther Challis, a stockbroker who allegedly seduced adolescent girls. Woodhull triumphed over the charges against her but lost her presidential bid.

Belva Lockwood — First Female Attorney to Argue Before Supreme Court

Described by the U.S. National Archives as "the first woman to run a full-fledged campaign for the presidency of the United States," Belva Lockwood possessed an impressive list of credentials when she ran for president in 1884. Widowed at age 22 with a 3-year-old, she put herself through college, earned a law degree, became the first woman admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court and the first female attorney to argue a case before the nation's high court. She ran for president to promote women's suffrage, telling reporters that although she couldn't vote, nothing in the Constitution prohibited a man from voting for her. Nearly 5,000 did. Undaunted by her loss, she ran again in 1888.

Margaret Chase Smith — First Woman Elected to House and Senate

The first woman to have her name put in for nomination for the presidency by a major political party did not envision a career in politics as a young woman. Margaret Chase had worked as a teacher, telephone operator, office manager for a woolen mill and newspaper staffer before she met and married local politician Clyde Harold Smith at age 32. Six years later he was elected to Congress and she managed his Washington office and worked on behalf of the Maine GOP.

When he died of a heart condition in April 1940, Margaret Chase Smith won the special election to fill out his term and was re-elected to the House of Representatives, then was elected to the Senate in 1948 — the first female Senator elected on her own merits (not a widow/not previously appointed) and the first woman to serve in both chambers.

She announced her presidential campaign in January 1964, saying, “I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying for the finish.” According to the Women in Congress website, "At the 1964 Republican Convention, she became the first woman to have her name put in for nomination for the presidency by a major political party. Receiving the support of just 27 delegates and losing the nomination to Senate colleague Barry Goldwater, it was a symbolic achievement."

Shirley Chisholm — First Black Woman to Run for President

Eight years later Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) launched her presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination on January 27, 1972, becoming the first African American woman to do so. Although she was as committed as any major party male candidate, her run — like Chase Smith's nomination — was largely seen as symbolic. Chisholm did not identify herself as "the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that." Instead, she saw herself as "the candidate of the people of America" and acknowledged "my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."

It was a new era in more ways than one, and Chisholm's use of that word may have been deliberate. Her campaign paralleled an increasing push for passage of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) initially introduced in 1923 but newly invigorated by the growing women's movement. As a presidential candidate, Chisholm took a bold new approach that rejected "tired and glib cliches" and sought to bring a voice to the disenfranchised. In operating outside the rules of the old boys' club of career politicians, Chisholm did not have the backing of the Democratic party or its most prominent liberals. Yet 151 votes were cast for her at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.

Hillary Clinton — Most Successful Female Candidate

The most well-known and successful female presidential candidate to date has been Hillary Clinton. The former First Lady and junior Senator from New York announced she was running for President on January 20, 2007, and entered the race as the frontrunner for the 2008 nomination — a position she held until Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) wrested it from her in late 2007/early 2008.

Clinton's candidacy stands in marked contrast to earlier bids for the White House by accomplished women who were prominent and respected but who had little chance of winning.

Michelle Bachmann — First Female GOP Frontrunner

By the time Michele Bachmann announced her intent to run for president in the 2012 election cycle, her campaign was neither farfetched nor a novelty thanks to this longstanding sisterhood of female candidates who had previously paved the way. In fact, the only female candidate in the GOP field took an early lead after winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August 2011. Yet Bachmann barely acknowledged the contributions of her political foremothers and seemed reluctant to publicly credit them with laying the foundation that made her own candidacy possible. Only when her campaign was in its final days did she acknowledge the need to elect "strong women" to positions of power and influence.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Lowen, Linda. "History of Women Running for President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/history-of-women-running-for-president-3534013. Lowen, Linda. (2023, April 5). History of Women Running for President of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-women-running-for-president-3534013 Lowen, Linda. "History of Women Running for President of the United States." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-women-running-for-president-3534013 (accessed June 1, 2023).