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

With 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.

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.