by Jennifer Smith

L3 undergraduate

On 20 February 2017, a roundtable of historians and political scientists met at the University of Lincoln to discuss their first impressions on the results of the recent presidential election in the United States. Dr Sinead McEneaney spoke about Hilary Clinton and why she, despite being the most qualified candidate for the presidency, lost the election to a businessman and television personality with no prior experience in politics or government. One of the conclusions that Dr McEneany drew from the result was that Clinton’s gender may have been a factor in why many Americans did not vote for her as they believed a woman was unable to be ‘presidential’.

Is it possible for a woman to be seen as ‘presidential’ by the American public and their fellow politicians? A look back at the history of female nominees for president indicates not. Prior to the election in November, there has never been a female main party presidential nominee and only seven women aside from Clinton have ran for the position.

The first woman to run for a main party presidential nomination was Margaret Chase Smith, for the Republican Party primary in the 1964 election. Smith had fifteen years of experience in the Senate and a further nine years in the House of Representatives. In comparison, Barry Goldwater, the successful Republican nominee, had only spent thirteen years in the Senate. Smith was an active opponent of Joseph McCarthy’s communist ‘witch hunts’ and her 1950 speech, the Declaration of Conscience, was praised by ex-presidential advisor Bernard Baruch who reportedly said that if a man had presented that speech ‘he would be the next President of the United States’. Smith’s candidacy was withdrawn during the Republican convention after she lost every primary.

Shirley Chisholm was the first female presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. She lost the primary to George McGovern in 1972 who, in turn, lost the election to Richard Nixon. Unlike Smith, Chisholm was considerably less qualified than her opponent, having only spent four years in the House of Representatives compared to McGovern’s fifteen years in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Chisholm’s campaign also lacked the public presence needed to generate interest, and she only received 430,000 votes. McGovern received just over four million.

A more recent candidate for the Democratic Party nomination was Carol Mosely Braun, who had served six years in the Senate, and two years as the United States Ambassador to New Zealand before announcing her candidacy for the 2004 presidential election. Although Moseley Braun was less qualified than the Democratic Party nominee John Kerry, she had significantly more experience in congress than Kerry’s running mate John Edwards, who had spent only five years in Congress. She was the second candidate to withdraw from the race in January 2004 after losing the DC Primary.

There are many reasons why there has never been a female presidential nominee prior to the last election. Income inequality has meant very few women have been able to enter even the lowest levels of the American Government and when they have reached a position where they are qualified and experienced enough to run, they often did not have the funds to keep up with male nominees. This is particularly evident in the campaigns of Chisholm and Moseley Braun. Female politicians have also been held, as Dr McEneaney has stated, to a much higher standard in terms of qualifications and expertise than male politicians. However, as is evident in the campaigns of Smith and Clinton, even when the female candidate has met these standards, she is passed over for a less experienced male candidate. The reason why there hasn’t been a female president might be less to do with a lack of qualified and experienced candidates and more to do with American public opinion on female politicians.

The First Lady of the United States, although only an honorary title, has been a position from which women have involved themselves in the highest levels of American politics. The most popular FLOTUS in history according to several public opinion polls was Eleanor Roosevelt. Her popularity came from what was considered at the time to be a heavy involvement in politics. For example, Roosevelt held press conferences, wrote a newspaper column and was involved in human rights campaigns. Nancy Reagan, although remembered predominantly for her domestic role in renovating the White House, launched the ‘Just Say No’ anti-drugs campaign in the 1980s. More recently, Michelle Obama has also enjoyed similar success in terms of her public image. Her political campaigns addressed social issues across the United States and overseas such as the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign in Nigeria, and this has led to calls for her to run for the Presidency herself, despite having no previous experience in Congress.

Although the role of First Lady of the United States has allowed women to be involved with and enjoy some success with political campaigns, the power they enjoy is secondary to the president’s power, and determinedly feminised. Their power is often associated with domesticity, glamour and sex appeal rather than leadership and intelligence. Therefore, the title of First Lady of the United States constrains these women’s public roles more than it empowers them politically.

Further Reading:

Curwood, Anastasia. ‘Black Feminism on Capitol Hill: Shirley Chisholm and Movement Politics, 1968-1984’, Meridians 13 (2015), 204-232.

Fitzpatrick, Ellen. The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency (Cambridge, 2016).

McEneaney, Sinead. ‘The “Woman Issue” in the Last US Election’, https://sineadmceneaney.com/2017/02/22/the-woman-issue-in-the-last-us-election/.

Wright, Lauren A. On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today (Santa Barbara, 2016).