July 29, 2016
knight-l-16 copy

Louise W. Knight is the author of Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (2005) and Jane Addams: Spirit in Action (2010). Her biography of Sarah and Angelina Grimké will be published in 2018. She is a visiting scholar in the gender and sexuality program at Northwestern University.

As the Democratic Party becomes the first major U.S. political party to nominate a woman for president, it is worth noting that the idea has been around for a while. In 1837, almost 180 years ago, American abolitionist and feminist Angelina Grimké wrote, “A woman has just as much right as a man to occupy the Presidential Chair.”[1]

Today the truth of her assertion is accepted. But when she wrote that sentence, the idea of a female U.S. president was not just controversial; it was monstrous. Beginning in the 1820s (as Rosemarie Zagarri explains in her fine book, Revolutionary Backlash), the ideology of public and private spheres took root in American society, leading many men to see even minor public actions by a woman, such as giving reform speeches to audiences that included the opposite sex, as undermining the established gender order. In 1837, the same year that Angelina claimed women’s right to the presidency, a group of male Congregational clergy implicitly condemned her and her sister Sarah for lecturing on reform by noting “the dangers [which] threaten the female character [when she] assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer” and urged women to defer to men as their “superiors” and to wield influence only privately.[2]

Yet in 2016 we are not only able to imagine a woman president, which is a large step in itself, but we might soon elect one. How has this tremendous change in our public imagination and national desire come to pass?

The first step, no one can doubt, was when the Declaration of Independence trumpeted the radical idea that all men are created equal. This led, in the early years of the nineteenth century, to new state laws giving the vote to all white men, not just propertied white men. And there were other calls to change the nation’s social, economic, and political structures, each one embracing the Declaration’s assertion of human equality. The campaigns to free the enslaved, to end racial and ethnic prejudice, to liberate women from gendered oppression, and to fight for the rights of people with disabilities and the rights of gays, lesbians, and the transgendered were all launched by invoking the Declaration’s ringing phrase.

The idea of equality was like a fire that could not be controlled; people carried it from one cause to another. Angelina recalled later that she had “believed in woman’s subordination” until she encountered the abolition movement’s commitment to equality.[3] As she put it, “The investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own.”[4] The sisters’ advocacy for women’s rights, including Sarah’s book, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, grew out of the attacks they received as women working as abolition reformers.[5]

Still, for decades the Declaration’s bold claim did not apply to the office of the presidency. The first crack in its wealthy-white-men tradition happened in 1828, when Andrew Jackson, a man of modest origins as well as a son of immigrants, was elected the nation’s seventh president, but he was also a lawyer, as five of the six preceding presidents had been, and, like George Washington, famous for his military achievements.

After Jackson the presidency continued to be held by a steady stream of white men. Many were wealthy and politicians, but virtually all also met at least one of the same unspoken requirements: they were educated in the law or were military men. Some were both. Rutherford B. Hayes was a lawyer and a military man; so were James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Among those with only a legal background Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding squeaked by, historically speaking, because, although they were not lawyers, they had acquired a tad of legal education. Three had only military experience: Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower. Only one president has had neither—engineer and businessman Herbert Hoover—but he had served in the cabinet and had a high public profile from his volunteer campaign to feed the starving people of Europe during World War I. The rest, up to today, have had either military experience and/or a background in the law. Lyndon Baines Johnson would have been a big exception had he not studied law for several months. George W. Bush would have been a big exception had he not served in the National Guard.

Because women and men, until very recently, could not serve equally in the military, the law had to be women’s ticket to a plausible presidential candidacy. But until the 1960s, that was a nearly impossible hurdle since only tiny handfuls of women managed to earn law degrees. So it is not surprising that none of the first three historically notable women who ran for president—Victoria Woodhull in 1872, Margaret Chase Smith in 1964, or Shirley Chisholm in 1972—had any legal education. Their fascinating stories, which form the core narrative of Ellen Fitzpatrick’s new book, The Highest Glass Ceiling, give moving context to Clinton’s candidacy.

To be sure, none of the three expected to be nominated by their party. They were running, as they often said, to pave the way for a future woman president. And all three were successful pathbreakers for their sex. A few months after Woodhull finished her presidential campaign, she became the first woman to testify before a Congressional committee. Smith had been the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate before she became the first woman to run for the Republican nomination for president. Chisholm had been the first African American woman to be elected to the U.S. House before she became the first African American to run for the Democratic nomination for president. Through their historic campaigns these women helped make the idea of a female presidential candidate less shocking. (Political scientist Jo Freeman has documented the many firsts that various women running for president have achieved.)


Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC Conference, 2016. (Wikimedia)

Woodhull, of course, ran for president before women had the right to vote. When the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1920, after decades of organizing, lobbying, marching, demonstrating, and going to jail, it effectively allowed only white women and northern black women to vote. In the south black women, like black men, were disenfranchised by state voting restrictions and violence until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women of other ethnic backgrounds (the Chinese in the west, for example) also faced early barriers to voting. It was only beginning in 1966 that all women truly had the potential to be, if not a voting bloc, then a voting scale-tipper.

The idea of a women’s voting bloc had been part of the suffrage debate. After the woman suffrage amendment became law, many waited eagerly—or nervously—to see how women’s votes would affect presidential elections. To the surprise of some, although more and more women voted between 1920 and 1976, there was no real difference between the parties when it came to how women versus men cast their votes.

That all changed in 1980, the first year when exit polls indicated that women had dominated in their support for one major party’s candidate and men had dominated in their support for the other major party’s candidate. Since 1980 the Democratic candidate has always attracted a higher proportion of female voters, while the Republican candidate has always attracted a higher proportion of male voters. In his reelection campaign in 2012 Obama drew 10 percentage points more female voters than male voters, while Romney drew 8 percentage points more male voters than female voters. (The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University has posted the complete chart of the history of the gender gap in presidential elections.) At the most basic level this suggests that over the last 36 years the Democratic Party has gained an edge with women, both because its candidates consistently appeal to more Democratic women than men and because the Republican Party’s candidates consistently appeal to fewer Republican women than men.

Enter Hillary Clinton. As the first woman presidential candidate for the Democratic Party she seems quite likely to benefit from the largest ever female-led gender gap. In addition, because this is her second run for president, her fundraising track record and her support from her party are especially strong, while her opponent, so far, is weak in both areas.

During our nation’s seemingly endless presidential campaigns journalists specialize in blow-by-blow analysis. This year much ink has been spent and will be spent discussing controversial ads, slips of candidates’ tongues, offensive tweets, sloppy management of confidential materials in emails, and inconsistencies in various public statements. Will these things influence the outcome? I doubt it. In the presidential election of 2016, in addition to Clinton’s immediate advantages, every historical force that has been building to produce a female president is now in place. Clinton is possibly one of the most qualified candidates for president this nation has ever seen. She is a trained lawyer, a former U.S. senator, and a former secretary of state. No president since James Buchanan has had that trifecta. She has already been a pathbreaker for her gender as the first former First Lady to be elected to the Senate and, now, as the first woman to receive a major party’s presidential nomination. And, finally, she is going to benefit hugely from the female-weighted Democratic gender gap (a Pew poll in June gave her a 16-percentage point advantage). Is Hillary Clinton going to be the first female president of the United States? History says yes.


[1] Angelina Grimké, Letter XII, “Human Rights Not Founded on Sex,” October 2, 1837, first published in the Liberator and later republished in Letters to Catherine E. Beecher (Boston, 1838).

[2] General Association of Massachusetts, Pastoral Letter, June 28, 1837, printed in the Liberator, August 11, 1837.

[3] Angelina Grimké to Jane Smith, August 10, 1837. Katharine DuPre Lumpkin, The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974), 106

[4] Angelina Grimké, Letter XII, Letters to Catherine E. Beecher (Boston, 1838), 114.

[5] Sarah Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (Boston, 1838). These letters were first published during the summer and fall of 1837 in the Liberator.