Run like a Girl: Women Presidential Candidates throughout History

March 21, 2016

It’s no secret that in the United States, women face barriers to leadership — especially in the political realm. Women represent only 19 percent of Congress, 24 percent of state legislatures, and 12 percent of governors (and I’m sure you know that we have never had a woman president — of the country, at least.)

But that doesn’t mean women haven’t tried. Women have been running for president of the United States since 1872 — before women even had the right to vote. And this year, two high-profile women entered the race. Here are some of the women who have tried to crack the ultimate glass ceiling.

1. Victoria Woodhull

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Photo via EraserGirl (Matthew Brady)/Wikimedia Commons

In 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president. She ran with the Equal Rights Party, and her running mate was Frederick Douglass. A controversial figure at the time, she supported issues we take for granted today like an eight-hour workday and many social welfare programs.

NEW! AAUW Research: Why Do Men Still Outnumber Women in Leadership?

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2. Gracie Allen

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Photo via By Duell, Sloan & Pearce Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Remember back in 2007 when Stephen Colbert filed to run for president in his home state of South Carolina? It turns out he was not the first comedian to come up with that idea. In 1940, comedian Gracie Allen (of the comedy duo Burns and Allen) ran for president on the “Surprise Party” ticket as a publicity stunt. She used her zany style of humor to make fun of the political process.

Gracie Allen: George, I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m running for president.
George Burns: You’re running for president? Gracie, how long has this been going on?
Allen: For 150 years. George Washington started it.
Burns: But in the entire history of the United States, there’s never been a woman president.
Allen: Yeah isn’t that exciting? I’ll be the first one.

In a time of depression and looming war, Allen provided levity and received several thousand write-in votes.

3. Margaret Chase Smith

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Photo via U.S. Senate Historical Office/Wikimedia Commons

In 1964, Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman presidential candidate for a major party. As the first woman elected to both the House and the Senate, she said that she received many letters encouraging her to run. However, she was not encouraged by the party establishment. At her campaign announcement in front of the National Women’s Press Club, you can hear the audience laugh as she describes one of the reasons she was told not to run: “It is contended that as a woman, I would not have the physical stamina and strength to run. And that I should not take that much out of me for what might even conceivably be a good cause, even if a losing cause.”

Like this post? Stay tuned for more! We’re featuring a story about women running for president in the upcoming Spring 2016 issue of Outlook magazine.

4. Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm poster

Photo via Library of Congress

Unbought and Unbossedwas the slogan for Shirley Chisholm’s run for the presidency in 1972. Black women have long been an integral yet unsung part of the political process. Chisholm was a pioneer as the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first woman of color and first major-party black candidate to run for president.

5. Carol Moseley Braun

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Photo via US Gov. Scanlan/Wikimedia Commons

Following in Chisholm’s footsteps, in 2000 Braun became the first African American woman U.S. senator to run for president. Braun’s candidacy was often questioned, but she always responded that her record was as strong as those of her fellow candidates.

By running for the highest office in the country, these women have set the stage for many more women to follow. At AAUW, we are encouraging the next generation of Victorias, Gracies, Margarets, Shirleys, and Carols to step up and lead.


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