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A Woman for President: 144 Years and Counting

Candidate Hillary Clinton stands on the shoulders of thousands of women who have run for political office since the nineteenth century. Newspaper publisher Victoria Woodhull ran for president of the United States in 1872. Twelve years later, attorney Belva Lockwood announced as the presidential candidate of the small Equal Rights Party. Unlike Woodhull, she ran a full campaign for the office with electors pledged to her and votes tallied.

These two candidacies were symbolic ones. Woodhull and Lockwood, suffrage activists, knew that they had no chance of winning but they wished to show that women were serious about becoming full participants in the American democratic experiment decades before universal woman suffrage. Lockwood famously said, “women cannot vote but we can be voted for.” And in 1884 Lockwood, a 54 year old widow, mother, and lawyer made the bold step of putting herself on the national political stage as a candidate for U.S. president. She financed her bid for office by giving paid speeches across the country. One of her most popular was titled, “The Political Situation.” National and local newspapers covered Lockwood’s talks, and her platform. Magazine artists initiated her into the brotherhood of male candidates by including the lady candidate in their often satiric cartoons.

With her candidacy Lockwood was insisting that the time had come for universal woman suffrage and the right of women to run for elective office. She did not emphasize, however, that across the United States small numbers of women had been running for public office since 1853 and, increasingly, winning. In some instances these victories occurred because, in towns and counties across the country, women had fought for, and won, partial voting rights and could vote for women candidates. By the mid-1880s the legislatures of fifteen states had enacted woman suffrage in school elections.

But in other states women could not vote and yet, quite astonishingly, they could run for office. The findings of the new Her Hat Was in the Ring project and web site reveal that in numerous elections, until the last decade of the nineteenth century, women won elective offices through the support of an all-male electorate.

The findings of the Her Hat project upend the previous interpretation of U.S. political history in which it has been argued that virtually no women ran for political office prior to 1920. It is true that many American women were happy to work for civic betterment using non-partisan and non-elective methods. But it was also the case that thousands of women took a different route and did seek elective office. Female candidates ran in competitive races, often with a party affiliation. They campaigned against men and won, and they competed for positions that carried salaries. They expanded the nature of women’s political citizenship, to become first class citizens. Some of these women elected officials legally represented their local governments as mayors, county recorders of deeds, town council members, and state superintendents of education.

Between 1853 and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 perhaps as many as 5,500 women ran for office. These thousands of women ran for over sixty different political offices in more than forty states or territories. They were affiliated with many different political parties, but were most successful in gaining office as Republicans and Democrats. A large number were married.

In Lincoln County, Maine, in 1853, Olive Rose successfully ran for the office of County Register. She won 73-4 in one town where women could not vote. In Boston, in 1873, women were elected to the city’s school board, but were challenged. Special state legislative action was required to guarantee the women’s right to the office. By 1880 women had run in over 200 campaigns and the numbers only increased over the following decades as more voters elected women to office. In 1888 Illinois attorney Catharine Waugh (McCulloch) ran for state attorney as the candidate of the Prohibition Party. She lost, but ran 200 votes ahead of the party ticket. In 1907, in an aggressive campaign against a male candidate, McCulloch – now married and a mother – won election as Evanston, Illinois justice of the peace (re-elected in 1909). Evanston women could not vote. Higher up the ballot, there were 330 campaigns for state house or senate by 1920. Prior to 1920, seven women campaigned to become U.S. Senator. None succeeded in winning senatorial office but in 1916 Jeannette Rankin of Montana made history when she was elected the first woman member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Well before the chant, “Yes, we can,” these women candidates seized the moment in towns, counties, and states in order to obtain the full civic rights of an American citizen. Tomorrow voters will determine whether, after 144 years, the United States will, in fact, have a woman president. In becoming a senator, secretary of state and now candidate for the presidency, Hillary Clinton has drawn upon an American culture changed by the women’s movements of two centuries. She has benefitted from the female officials elected since ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. And now, new research permits us to show that her way has also been advanced by Woodhull and Lockwood along with the thousands of women who ran for public office before 1920.

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