A Woman Won the Iowa Caucuses for the First Time. No Asterisk Needed.

2258617170_3d213918a9_zWith the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

The Iowa caucuses have led the presidential nominating process for over four decades. In that time, just four women candidates have competed for Iowans’ votes. Including Clinton twice (for her 2008 and 2016 bids), women are just 4.8 percent of all 105 candidates to have ever competed in Iowa’s caucuses. They represent three of 48 Democratic bids and two of 57 Republican bids for Iowa’s votes.

Democratic candidate Shirley Chisholm earned just 1 percent of state delegates in 1972, and no woman competed in either major party caucuses again until Hillary Clinton won 29.5 percent of state delegates in 2008. Republican Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the 2000 race in October 1999, three months before Iowans caucused. Democrat Carol Moseley Braun dropped out of the 2004 race just days ahead of Iowa’s caucuses, using the press conference in which she announced her withdrawal to urge Iowans to caucus for Howard Dean. In 2012, Republican Michelle Bachmann earned 5 percent of caucus votes, five months after she beat all other GOP candidates in the Iowa Straw Poll.

For the first time, women competed in both major party caucuses in 2016. Carly Fiorina won 1.9 percent of Republican caucus votes, coming in seventh place in a GOP field of 12. Hillary Clinton earned 49.9 percent of state delegate equivalents, 0.3 percent more than Bernie Sanders. Her margin of victory is the closest of any Iowa Democratic caucus contest to date. Still, she won, and in doing so became the first woman from either party to win the Iowa caucuses. Even more, she nearly doubled the support of any other woman candidate to date, increasing her share of state convention delegates by 20 percentage points since her 2008 bid.

The historic nature of Clinton’s bid needs no asterisk. Despite reports that the race was a “virtual tie,” speculation that she won due to the flip of some coins (which has been proven false), or even questions raised by the Sanders campaign about the final results, the Iowa Democratic Party’s final count of state delegate equivalents was 700.59 (Clinton) to 696.82 (Sanders). In caucusing, there are no recounts. That means that Clinton will hold the honor of being the first woman to win the Iowa caucuses. Period. End of sentence.

Clinton is also the only woman candidate who has ever won any presidential primaries to date, earning the plurality of votes in 23 state nominating contests in 2008.

The rarity of women’s presence, let alone success, in presidential contests makes the relative oversight of or attempts to undermine Clinton’s success on Monday night all the more frustrating. In a race where Clinton—and, in some cases, her supporters—are criticized for voting for her because she’s a woman, the narrative of breaking the highest, hardest glass ceiling appears to be somewhat tainted, taken as a political ploy for votes instead of a demonstration of political progress toward gender parity. Maybe that’s why so few headlines have noted the historic nature of Clinton’s win.

But maybe the asterisk placed on Clinton’s victory runs deeper, consistent with suggestions that her success is not hers alone to claim; in 2008, Chris Matthews (among others) argued, “the reason [Clinton’s] a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front runner, is that her husband messed around.” Even in 2016, some commentators have argued that Joe Biden “buoyed” Clinton’s bid by opting not to run, Bernie Sanders gave Clinton “an assist” by defending her against email-related attacks, or Republicans “saved” her by overreaching in their attacks. Successful women are sensitive to these seemingly benign claims because they too often undermine their independent achievements. They asterisk women’s accomplishments and power as, at least partly, dependent on the power ceded by men.

Whatever the reasons for the relative inattention to or cautious framing of Clinton’s win on Monday, history will recognize it as one marker in women’s political progress at the presidential level. Remember, women’s political successes have always been hard-won. In 1920, women won the right to vote by one vote cast by a 24 year-old male Tennessee legislator. From that point on, women had a formal voice in the presidential election process. Women—and men—used that voice during Monday night’s Democratic caucuses to give a woman candidate the win for the first time in Iowa’s history. No asterisk needed.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user brwn_yd_grl licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar


  1. cursingoldgoat says:

    Not so fast Ms Dittmar. An audit on the Iowa election results is being conducted as I type this…….

  2. cursingoldgoat says:

    Senator Bernie Sanders is the only viable candidate. He is of and for the People. Senator Bernie is the only candidate in either party who is not in the pockets of the billionaire/corporate puppet masters. This election is not about lib. vs conserv. or democrat vs repub. it is about getting our country back for the people. Right wing, left wing……All the same bird…….ie TPP……..Please don’t vote with your vagina ladies.

  3. cursingoldgoat says:
  4. Barbara Ollmann says:

    Well, Iowa Democratic Committee found several errors and have withdrawn Hillary as final winner. They are doing a recount based on actual numbers….Don’t bother sending me emails. I am a Bernie supporter. He is better for women than Hillary is.

  5. With all due respect, Sanders and Clinton virtually tied. The difference in votes is within the margin of error. It’s not unreasonable to want to “asterisk” this primary.

    Good one!

  7. Very well-written. Thank you.

  8. Pablo Narvaez says:

    Wall street will get the benefit$ of its “investment” on Hillary’s campaign. If she wins, that is. We would be so naive to think they gave her that much money out of the goodness of their heart.
    The fact that Bernie Sanders can not be held accountable by any mogul, but by the people themselves, who have financed his campaign, and continue to do so, marks a watershed moment in American politics.
    It also points at the increasing possibility, that the days of the super rich, the banks and the powerful corporations, influencing the government for their own, selfish benefits, may be coming to an end.
    Specially with a woman of determination and grit, like Elizabeth Warren, waiting in the wings to take charge, and clean up the rot in Washington and wall street.
    Hillary would never do that to the hand that feeds her; she sold her soul to the crooks.
    She belongs in the past.

  9. I guess the asterisk is: * Hillary squeaks out a RAZOR-THIN “victory” in Iowa by UNBELIEVABLY winning 6 coin tosses in a row!

  10. 0.2% Really? That’s what your proud of?

  11. dk oakland says:

    No, she did not. As it stands right now, it is a TIE.

  12. Amazing achievement in the history of American politics. I want to call her Madame President. She is president and has comported herself with the reserve and dignity that befits a president of these United States. She is brave and has taken blow after blow from both demorats and repulsicans. I am sick and tired of seeing her misrepresented and denigrated. It is an insult to all smart, ambitious and outspoken women who refused to be intimidated into keeping silent and in the place the patriarchy has reserved for them.

  13. suzanne123 says:

    I am offended by the sexism launched at Hillary and the racism against Ben Carson. However, I take offense to this statement: “her husband messed around.” Bill Clinton behaviour was his abuse of women, not his adultery. Al Gore was right when he spoke out about Clinton’s behaviour with women, and Bill Clinton helped to sabotage Gore’s political career (because Gore spoke out about his behaviour). Hillary has done a lot for women, and Carly F and Megyn Kelly have stood up to Donald Trump’s sexism. However, must we repeat this myth that Bill’s abuse of women was simply adultery?

  14. suzanne123 says:

    Furthermore, I take offence to David Brock (who wrote a book challenging Anita Hill’s statements) being a large force behind Hillary’s campaign. Hillary is great, but David Brock and Bill Clinton need to be help accountable for their treatment of women.

  15. Congrats to HRC (I guess), but I’m still #FeelingTheBern and will be voting for him in my primary

  16. Mary Hackett says:

    Hillary has done more than Bernie will ever do. He only became a democrat last year so as to run as a presidential candidate, what’s with that? Hillary has the experience and commitment, how can we not vote for her an intelligent, smart women Mary Hackett

  17. catherinethegreat says:

    Even though I hope Sanders wins the nomination, I find all this criticism of Hillary Clinton not being progressive enough very offensive. It’s fine for the Sanders support to say this, as they are just pointing out differences in policies; however, mainstream media has no business expecting Hillary, Obama, Ben Carson and Carly to be more progressive than white male counterparts. Was Al Gore so progressive? Is Joe Biden so progressive? Bill Clinton was a moderate who cut welfare, yet he was preferable over the Republicans. Women and African-Americans are held to impossible standards. And this media criticism of Albright and Steinem is ridiculous – they were just pointing out that women should support other women (all women, not just young women).

    There is also something missing – the reason why Sanders is more radical is because a white man is allowed to be radical whereas African Americans (Obama, Ben Carson) and women (Hillary, Carly) must be more moderate to succeed. Sanders is allowed to challenge the status quo because he is a white man.

    Although I want Sanders to win the nomination, I don’t think he would be doing so well politically if he wasn’t relatively quiet on his religion. Being Jewish is also a minority, and all minorities and women are held to impossible standards to succeed.

  18. Thank you for sharing this! It was so interesting to hear about; I’m so happy to get to vote for her. I was glad to learn about these unprecedented historic accomplishments. This candidate is something to get excited about.

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