Top Ten Women in US Political History

We’re used to women in politics now, from members of the local council to Heads of State. That, however, has not always been the case. For years, women have had to fight to get to the top. The United States is no exception. 

Here are ten women in US history who have made an impact in the world of presidential politics. From early efforts to modern wins, these women have been essential in levelling the playing field.

  1. Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)

In any time period, Victoria Woodhull would be considered a rather unconventional lady. The daughter of a conman and his wife, Woodhull had only three years of schooling. The family was run out of town when her father burnt their property down in an insurance scam. She was married at 15 to an alcoholic womaniser whom she later divorced. 

Woodhull was fascinated by mysticism and spirituality. She became devoted to the Free Love movement, as she was upset by women’s place in marriage and how society allowed men to have affairs. Woodhull and her sister set up their own successful newspaper and also became the owners of the first female-led brokerage firm. 

She was known for her rather unconventional views- she supported suffrage, free love, vegetarianism and legalised prostitution. These were all espoused in her newspaper. 

When it came to politics, Woodhull argued that women could legally vote under the 14th and 15th Amendments, they just needed to use it. Woodhull was a passionate advocate of suffrage, speaking in front of Congressional committees to argue her point- the first woman to petition Congress in person.

In 1872, Woodhull became the first woman to be nominated for President. She ran under the banner of the Equal Rights Party. Even more controversially, Civil Rights firebrand Frederick Douglass was nominated for Vice President. The idea of whites and blacks mixing was abhorrent, even to more liberal members of society.

Unfortunately for Woodhull, she was arrested and jailed for obscenity only a few days before the election took place. She’d published details of an affair between pastor Henry Ward Beecher and a female parishioner in order to highlight hypocrisy. Both Woodhull and her sister were jailed for several months.

Whilst Woodhull attempted to run for president twice more, she was even more unsuccessful. She divorced her second husband in 1876 before marrying again in 1883. Woodhull found herself better received in her new London home, where she was a philanthropist. Upon other ventures, she opened a school and wrote many papers.

Woodhull died in Worcestershire, England on 9th June 1927 aged 88. She had two children. 

“I ask the rights to pursue happiness by having a voice in that government to which I am accountable.

  1. Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995)

A teacher, office worker and businesswoman, Margaret Chase Smith got into politics when she married businessman Clyde Smith in 1930. In that same year, she joined the Maine Republican Party. In 1936, when Clyde Smith became a Congressman, Chase Smith worked at his Washington Office. 

Representative Smith fell seriously ill in 1940 and requested that his wife run for his seat at the next election. Before that could happen, Smith died and a special election was held. It wasn’t uncommon for widows to run in these special elections until the next general one, though most didn’t run again. Chase Smith won the special election and several more in her own right over the next several years. 

In 1940, as war brewed, Chase Smith ran on military preparedness, which helped in her ship-building district. She also ran on helping the elderly, popular with her older constituents. Chase Smith became known as the Mother of WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), also a pun on her Navy record. She became the only civilian woman to sail a navy ship during WW2. Chase Smith continued to champion military legislation well after the war’s end, especially regarding female veterans and members.

Incumbent Senator Wallace H. White Jr decided to retire at the 1948 election. Chase Smith was opposed by her state party when she ran, due to her voting with the Democrats, but managed to win. She’d been aided by her voting record, the strong efforts of female supporters and meeting voters in the flesh

Chase Smith was the first woman to be on the Appropriations and Armed Forces committees. Most famously, she was the first Representative to denounce McCarthyism in the famous “Declaration of Conscience” Speech in 1950. This made her an enemy of McCarthy for life. Chase Smith also angered the Eisenhower administration by torpedoing one of his cabinet picks- only the third time in history this had happened. In 1960, her opponent for the Senate seat was Lucia Cormier. This was the first time two women had been opponents for any Senate seat.

1964 was the big year for Chase Smith, who decided to run for President. Her campaign was small and not well-funded, and Chase Smith had no illusions she’d win, but she received support. Whilst she didn’t win a single primary, she did manage to get a very surprising 25% in the state of Illinois. Chase Smith came fifth and refused to withdraw as to prevent Barry Goldwater from getting unanimous consent. Thus, Chase Smith was the first woman to be considered as a nominee for a major political party. 

Chase Smith continued her political career in the later years. She was a proponent of using nuclear weapons against the Russians and supported the Vietnam War. Conversely, Chase Smith was pro-civil rights and was essential in getting a man on the moon. Once again, she angered a new administration by voting against two of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees. 

In 1972, Chase Smith lost re-election. She was getting on in life and was attacked by her opponent for being out of touch, as she didn’t even have an office in Maine. Chase Smith worked as a visiting professor after leaving office for three years before retiring. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989.

Chase Smith died of a stroke at her Maine home in 1995 at the age of 95. 

“When people keep telling you that you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try it.

  1. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

Born to immigrant parents in New York City, Shirley Chisholm lived in Barbados from the ages of 5 to 10. Upon returning to America, she became academically successful and was a champion debater in college- no mean feat for a black girl in 40s America. 

Chisholm initially worked in education, earning a Master’s from Columbia University, a place that didn’t fully accept women until 1982. She married and was active in many political groups such as the League of Women Voters. 

In 1964, Chisholm became the second African-American woman to be a member of the New York State Legislature. Four years later, she ran for Congress and won. Her passion was social issues, and she advocated for women, minorities and the poor. She also adamantly opposed the Vietnam War and fought to end it. Chisholm co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. 

1972 saw Chisholm run for President. 

As one could imagine, it was an uphill battle for recognition. The men in the Congressional Black Caucus were less than thrilled with a woman running. Her campaign didn’t bring in much money, she wasn’t allowed to appear in any television ads and could only make a speech once legal action occurred. Whilst Chisholm got a respectable number of votes, she nonetheless only places seventh. She expressed the view that her gender was more of a hindrance than her race, especially among black males. Her loyal followers, however, followed the “Chisholm Trail.” 

Chisholm remained in Congress for several years, becoming the first black and second woman to serve on the prestigious House Rules Committee. She left Congress in 1982 and began a teaching career at Mount Holyoke. Chisholm continued her political activities and campaigned for Jesse Jackson in 1984. She gave over 100 speeches at a popular speaking tour.

Bill Clinton offered her the position of Ambassador to Jamaica in 1993 after she retired to Florida. She declined due to ill health. In 2005, Chisholm died after a series of strokes at the age of 80 in Florida. Her tombstone reads “Unbossed and Unbought,” the same name as her autobiography. 

“I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.

  1. Ellen McCormack (1926-2011)

Ellen McCormack is unusual on this list as she did not have the glittering career others did, yet she still made history. The daughter of Irish immigrants, Ellen McCormack was a housewife with four children when she began her political journey.

She ran for the Presidency in 1976, three years after Roe v Wade. Though she was part of the Democratic Party, McCormack ran on an exclusively pro-life platform. McCormack was the first woman to receive both federal funding and Secret Service protection. Much of her funding came from small donations from private citizens. Though she did not win any of her 18 primaries, she received three delegates and thus her name was under contention. 

After her loss, McCormack founded the New York Right to Life Party, a single issue pro-life group. She was their candidate for Lt. Governor in 1978.

McCormack died in Connecticut in 2011 aged 84. She outlived her husband Francis by 18 years.

“Maybe, if enough people across the country protest, it will force Jimmy Carter to give us room.

  1. Tonie Nathan (1923-2014)

Theodora “Tonie” Nathan was born in NYC in 1923. She later married a man who had the same surname. Nathan operated several businesses in Los Angeles before moving to Oregon to gain her degree in Journalism in 1971. 

A year after she received her degree, Nathan became the Libertatian Party’s VP nominee. Though the ticket only got a little over 3,000 votes, a faithless Republican elector chose Nathan and ticket mate John Hospers over Nixon and Agnew. Nathan became the first woman and first Jew to win an electoral college vote.

Nathan ran for office several more times, failing in each. In 2012, she spoke at the Libertarian National Convention and announced Gary Johnson as the party’s nominee.

That year, Nathan’s husband of 70 years died. She passed away in 2014 from Alzheimer’s at the age of 91, in Oregon, survived by her two sons.

“It seemed to me that many women who felt unjustly treated by many of our present inequitable laws were being used by leftists and socialists for political purposes.

  1. Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011)

The daughter of Italian immigrants, Geraldine Ferraro was eight when her father died. The family was poor due to bad investments, but Ferraro’s mother insisted on her getting educated. She attended college on a scholarship, though she had to work throughout. Ferraro initially worked as a teacher before deciding to attend law school, though a male admissions officer discouraged her from attending due to her being a woman.

Ferraro was initially working part time whilst raising her three children, though she was involved in politics in her spare time. Her first full time job was as an Assistant District Attorney. She later became part of the Special Victims Unit whilst forming a friendship with Mario Cuomo, who would later become Mayor of New York.

When incumbent John Delaney stepped down in 1978, Ferraro ran for New York’s 9th District. Ferraro ran on being a conservative Democrat in an area known for being conservative, using her time as a DA as proof of her tough stance on crime. 

After three terms in Congress, Ferraro was nominated by Walter Mondale to be his Vice President on the 1984 Democratic ticket. There’d been a huge campaign for a woman to be named and many were on Mondale’s short list, as well as some ethnic minorities. There was initially huge buzz, as this was the first time a woman was on a major party ticket. 

Unfortunately, Ferraro did little to improve the ticket’s chances. A majority of voters believed she was picked because she was a woman. Reagan was still very popular, which polling showed throughout. Women voters weren’t necessarily in favour of her. Her working class credentials were ripped apart by the knowledge she had a live-in maid. Catholics and pro-life advocates criticised her pro-choice stance.

The biggest scandal involved her husband. The couple had filed their tax returns jointly, which seemed normal until it was discovered that Ferraro was registered as a partner in her husband’s business. She had not disclosed this to Congress and had not mentioned it to the presidential team. This meant that the business had not been scrutinised properly. Her husband had done some illegal business practices and this raised questions about Ferraro’s law past. Whilst Ferraro released the returns and paid off their due tax, the damage was done. The scandal possibly made the loss even worse. Congress later ruled that Ferraro had made an error, whilst her husband was later criminally charged. 

Yes, we all know what happened in ‘84. The Reagan administration won 49 states, only losing Minnesota by 3,000 votes and DC. It is believed that whilst Ferraro may have caused a buzz, she was ultimately hardly useful. Ferraro ran for the State Senate in 1986, but legal investigations into her husband made it impossible and she bowed out. She ran for the Senate in 1992, but lost the primary, whilst the Republican candidate won overall. 

She stayed in politics, encouraging women to run for office, and worked in business. In 2008, Ferraro became an avid campaigner for Hillary Clinton. She was a fierce critic of Obama, believing a female president was more essential than an ethnic minority. Ferraro was also accused of racism, an allegation that had also been slung at her in 1984. She eventually supported Obama. 

Ferraro had been diagnosed with cancer in 1998. In 2011, she died of pneumonia at the age of 75. 

“You don’t go through a bloodbath like this and then walk away from it

  1. Sarah Palin (1964-Present)

Born in Idaho, Sarah Palin’s parents moved the family to Alaska when she was only a few months old. She competed in beauty pageants and went through several colleges before graduating from the University of Idaho. Palin married her high school sweetheart Todd a year later.

She was initially a member of the city council before becoming Mayor of Wasilla. As mayor, Palin focused on infrastructure, cutting taxes and certain government funded-services. In 2002, Palin came second in the Republican primary for Lieutenant-Governor. When Senator Frank Murkoswki left the senate to be Governor, Palin was believed to be a potential candidate for his replacement. This, however, controversially went to his daughter Lisa. Palin worked as a gas and oil overseer, before resigning.

In 2006, Palin decided to run for Governor. She won in a primary against Frank Murkoswki and even though her Democratic opponent outspent her, Palin comfortably won. She was the first woman to hold the gubernatorial job in Alaska. Her focus in the job was ethics management and budgeting, as well as an oil pipeline. Palin was generally popular in her role, though she was not without controversy.

Let’s spring to 2008. John McCain, the veteran Arizona Senator had won the Republican primaries to become the nominee for that year’s presidential election. He had to factor several things into his choice – two being his age and the fact he was running against the first ethnic minority ticket leader. McCain initially wanted to choose his friend Joe Lieberman, who had been Al Gore’s running mate in 2008, but he was seen as far too liberal. Palin was a vivacious character who would be popular with the grassroots and Conservative Christian corner. 

The initial reviews of Palin were positive. She electrified the base, was popular with conservative commentators and generated a huge buzz. Her gender was particularly notable as she was only the second woman on a major party ticket and first woman for the Republicans. She was also little-known, which made interest stronger. Unfortunately, Palin’s lack of experience and media savvy made her somewhat of a laughingstock. This was particularly damaging, as McCain’s advanced age made his Vice Presidential selection all the more important.

Palin turned to television, particularly the reality sort, after resigning the governorship. She has been a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, endorsing him early, but has not returned to active politics. Palin did not attend McCain’s funeral in 2018.

“We need leaders who will stand up for the little guy and listen once again.

  1. Jill Stein (1950-Present) 

Born into a Chicago Jewish family, Jill Stein attended Harvard for both undergraduate and medical school. She worked in hospitals in the Massachusetts area for over two decades.

Her political activism started in 1998, when she started protesting against environmental ruin. Stein has focused on how the environment and health are interlinked, using her role as a doctor to link the two. Whilst she was initially a Democrat, she left them over campaign finance.

Stein unsuccessfully tried for several key positions, such as Governor of Massachusetts, eventually finding more success in local government. In 2012, Stein ran for President, managing to get matching federal funds. She railed against both major parties, getting arrested for sit-ins and trespassing. 

She ran once again in 2016, during which she was charged with criminal misdemeanor mischief. It was also revealed she had holdings in industries such as pharmaceutical companies, which were seen as hypocritical. Stein ended up with over 1% of the overall vote and it was believed she took a chunk of voters from Hillary Clinton. She was essential in the battleground states that Trump eventually won. 

Stein tried to force a recount in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin after the election. The courts eventually ruled against her in each state. There was also an investigation into potential Russian interference in the election, as it was believed they had tried to unfairly garner support for Stein. 

Since then, Stein has remained focused on environmental issues and was a staunch critic of the Trump administration. 

There are real solutions right now for us if we stand up with the courage of our convictions.

  1. Hillary Clinton (1947- Present)

Born into a Republican Illinois household, Hillary Clinton was politically active from a young age. She campaigned for Barry Goldwater and was initially a member of the Young Republicans at Wellesley College. Clinton eventually became disenchanted with the GOP and became a Democrat. She was the first student to give the commencement address at Wellesley. This was followed by Yale Law, where she met Bill Clinton. 

After her marriage to Bill, Clinton joined him in Arkansas and worked at Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.  By this point, her husband was Attorney General. She later became the first female partner at Rose, whilst her husband was Governor. Their daughter Chelsea was born months before Clinton lost his gubernatorial election.

Hillary Clinton was partially blamed for the loss- she had kept her maiden name, a shocking thing for the very conservative Arkansas society. She eventually took Bill’s surname. Clinton continued to work after her husband was re-elected and was active in politics and community actions.

In 1991, Bill Clinton announced that he was running for President. Hillary Clinton was controversial in the campaign, mainly for her famous snarky comments about ‘standing by her man’ and ‘not staying home to bake cookies.’ She also had to face the accusations that B. Clinton had engaged in an extra-marital affair, as well as discussions about her own behaviour.

As First Lady, Clinton was politically active in a way no presidential spouse had been since Eleanor Roosevelt. She focused on women’s rights and children’s health as her causes. Becoming the chair of the National Health Care Reform task force was controversial, but her famous ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing was well received. She was extremely active in policy making and was well travelled, visiting nearly 80 countries.

Her time was not without issue. The Whitewater Investigation, focused on a sketchy investment made by the Clintons, was widely discussed. Another controversy was the so-called ‘Travelgate’ over financial irregularities at the White House. The cherry on top of this was the infamous Lewinsky scandal, in which Clinton watched as her husband admitted to an affair with an intern and was almost impeached.

Clinton eventually ran for a Senate seat, and won. She was simultaneously First Lady and Senator for New York for over two weeks. Her main focuses on the Senate were 9/11 relief, the Iraq War and military matters.

In 2007, Clinton announced that she was running in 2008. She was a clear favourite early on, but managed to be beaten by relative political newcomer and fellow Senator Barack Obama. Her consolation prize was the prestigious position of Secretary of State. She presided over many events, such as the death of Osama Bin Laden, but one stands out the most: Benghazi. On September 11, 2012, four Americans were killed in the Libyan city at the diplomatic compound. One of the men killed was the US Ambassador. Clinton was accused of not adequately protecting the men and was put before an investigation, though was cleared. 

She decided not to continue as Secretary of State into Obama’s next term, being succeeded by John Kerry. Clinton became a private citizen, focusing on public speaking, writing her memoirs and being part of the Clinton Foundation.

Then, in 2015, Clinton once again announced that she was running for president. Many believed she would win the Democratic nomination, which she did, but she received a surprisingly strong challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, Donald Trump gained steam and eventually became the Republican nominee. Though it was believed a GOP ticket would probably beat Clinton, everyone was sure she would absolutely trounce Trump.

Clinton still courted controversy, such as calling half of all Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.” The email scandal also reared its head, raising questions about Clinton’s views on security. Still, polls had Clinton and ticket mate Tim Kaine of Virginia winning by a landslide.

Oh, how wrong they were.

Though Clinton won the popular vote, Trump pipped her to the electoral college post. To everyone’s surprise, he picked up Rust Belt states like Michigan that hadn’t been Republican in decades, all whilst winning in swing areas. 

Since then, Clinton has remained a private citizen. Her memoir “What Happened” was a bestseller and she remains popular on the speaking circuit. She is likely retired from politics, as she did not run for 2020.

Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.

  1. Kamala Harris (1964-Present)

Born in Oakland to an Afro-Indian-Jamaican family, Kamala Harris would later attend the historically black Howard University in DC. She returned to California to get her law degree from UC Hastings. 

Harris started her career as an assistant DA and was later appointed to several political boards. The person who appointed her, Willie Brown, was her boyfriend at the time and this was controversial- though Brown had a history of this. Later in her legal career, Harris focused on cases such as child abuse, robbery and sexual assault. 

From 2004 until 2011, Harris served as District Attorney for San Francisco. She’d later be criticised by Democrats for going after marijuana offenders even though she’d smoked it herself, as well as arresting parents for their children being truant. In 2011, she became California Attorney-General and continued her crusade.

When Barbara Boxer decided to retire at the next election, Harris ran for the 2016 Senate seat. She easily won the primaries and 61% of the general vote against fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez. As Senator, she was most notable for her staunch opposition to Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh.

In 2019, Harris announced she was running for President. In a crowded field of 29 candidates, Harris was seen as one of the few potential front runners. Her fiery criticism of Joe Biden’s history of rejecting bussing in the 70s allowed her poll numbers to jump up. At the second debate, Biden returned fire by criticising her record in the judicial system. As she’d already been condemned for her harsh punishments and defence of the death penalty, Harris saw her support drop. In December 2019, she pulled out before the primaries. 

After Biden affirmed that he’d choose a female running mate, it was believed that Harris was a front runner. On August 11 2020, the ticket was announced. The Democrats won the election with over 7 million votes between them and the Republicans.

Harris became the first female Vice President on the January 20, 2021. She has been active in the role, such as greeting visiting Heads of State and being involved in the decision to leave Afghanistan.

“To everyone keeping up the fight, you are doing something.

Sarah Stook is a freelance writer with a great interest in US politics. Her area of interest is the Republican Party, presidential elections and how campaigns are conducted. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarah_stook.

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