These 10 Women Put Cracks in the Political Glass Ceiling, Too

Hillary Clinton made history last week when she became the first-ever woman to be nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party. She touched on the place she’s taking in history and what it means for women, in her acceptance speech, saying:

Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president. Standing here… as my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come. I’m happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. I’m happy for boys and men–because when any barrier falls in Americait clears the way for everyone. After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit. So let’s keep going, let’s keep going until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves to have.

Regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential election, this event represents a momentous milestone in not only feminist history, but America’s history. However, women’s representation in government remains dismal in our current political landscape even as a woman takes on an unprecedented challenge in this year’s president election. Even now, women represent less than 20% of the National Congress and fill only 25% of the seats in state legislatures across the country.

A plethora of women have been making chips in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” Hillary is now attempting to shatter. As we prepare for this year’s upcoming election, let’s take a look at just 10 of the women who led the charge for greater political roles for women across the country over the last few centuries—and paved the way for Hillary’s historic candidacy.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton is widely regarded as one of the founders of the women’s rights movement and was a passionate activist throughout her life. Originally a member of the abolitionist movement, she was inspired to change her focus to women’s right after she and the other women delegates at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention were excluded from the proceedings. In 1848 she organized the Seneca Falls convention, where the attendees prepared their “Declaration of Sentiments,” which among many things called for women’s right to vote.

While never serving in a political office, Stanton was the first woman to run for Congress. In 1866 she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in her home state of New York. Despite having the support of many women in New York, their inability to vote led her to only receiving 24 of the 12,000 votes cast. Despite this small number, her campaign represented the start of women’s push for a greater role in politics

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)

Like Stanton, Woodhull never served in a political office, though her ambitions were a little grander: in 1872, almost 50 years before women gained the right to vote, she became the first woman to run for president. By then she had already had a varied career as a clairvoyant for the Spiritualist movement, a stockbroker who started the first women-run brokerage company and the publisher of her own radical weekly publication. Prior to her run for president, she had addressed Congress on the issue of women’s suffrage and established the Equal Rights Party to advocate for greater rights for women.

Woodhull was arrested a few days prior to the election on the charges of sending obscene material through the mail, specifically for publishing an article in exposing prominent preacher Henry Ward Beecher’s infidelity. While found not guilty, Woodhull was reviled in the press and lost the support of the most prominent members of the suffragist movement. It is unknown how much of the popular vote she gained and there is evidence polling stations destroyed ballots in her favor, but her run for the presidency gave her a lasting place in history.

Susanna Salter (1860-1961)

Susanna Salter was elected as mayor of Argonia, Kansas is 1887, making her not only the first woman mayor but also the first woman elected to a political office in the United States. While a important historical event, Salter’s candidacy started out as a mean-spirited joke by a group of men in her town determined to bring down the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The group had been founded in 1883, the year women in Kansas were given the right to vote in local elections, with the focus of enforcing the state’s prohibition laws. When Argonia’s WCTU endorsed an all-male list of pro-temperance candidates for the 1887 election, several men in town created an alternative list that duplicated it but for one difference: Salter was the candidate for mayor. The men assumed only the most extreme members of WCTU would ever vote for a women and had chosen Salter because, as a town resident, she was the only eligible candidate from the WCTU. While having no idea she was a candidate, Salter nonetheless declared that she would serve if elected, and prominent Republicans in town decided to support her in an attempt to shut down the anti-temperance pranksters. In the end she won with over two-thirds the vote.

Mayor Salter’s single term was uneventful and she declined to run for a second term. Yet her election received wide spread media attention, with correspondents from newspapers across the country traveling to Argonia to see how a town could function under the direction of a woman. While often mocking, the coverage of Salter’s leadership nonetheless raised her election to national prominence and set the precedent for a steady stream of woman mayors and state legislators in the years to come.

Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973)

While many women succeeded Susanna Salter in state-wide positions, it was not until 1916 that a woman was elected to national government when Jeannette became a Representative for the state of Montana. Elected four years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, Rankin nonetheless observed upon her election: “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” True to her word, she formed the Committee of Woman Suffrage during her first term and was the only Representative to vote against both WWI and WWII during her time in Congress.

An active member of the suffragist movement, she campaigned to change the constitution of both Washington and Montana in order to allow women the right to vote. Her activism left her well-placed to win her first Congressional bid in 1916, an impressive victory considering how few women were able to vote at the time. An ardent pacifist, she re-entered Congress again in 1939 on an anti-war platform, though this position was no longer popular after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and she was the sole vote against entering WWII. This unpopular decision cost her the rest of her political career. While later considering running for the House yet again towards the end of her life to protest the Vietnam War, her deteriorating health prevented her from doing so.

Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977)

Nellie Tayloe Ross was the first woman to serve as a state governor, serving as the Governor of Wyoming after her husband’s death in 1924 and becoming one of the first women to benefit from the “widow’s mandate,” an unofficial political tradition where a wife succeeds her late husband in office. While this practice has been debated in recent years, it initially facilitated the entry of many women into the political sphere. Because her husband’s death happened so close to a general election, Ross was required to run in the upcoming election, which the chairman of the state Democratic Committee asked her to participate in. Several close associates, including her brother, advised her not to, concerned that she would come across as overly ambitious and be devastated by a probable loss.

Nonetheless Ross decided to run, making her platform the unselfish completion of her late husband’s work. She easily won the election and took office in 1925, but lost her bid for re-election only a year later. However, she was able to use her national reputation to speak widely, campaign for other politicians and become the director of the Women’s Division of the National Democratic Committee. In 1933 President Roosevelt made her the first woman Director of the Bureau of the Mint, a position she served in for 20 years until her retirement in 1953.

Hattie Wyatt Caraway (1878-1950)

Hattie Wyatt Caraway continued the tradition of the “widow’s mandate,” replacing her deceased husband in a political office and becoming the first woman senator to the U.S. Congress. After her husband’s death in 1931, she was appointed by Arkansas Governor Harvey Parnell to succeed him for the remainder of his term. Caraway was a safe choice as Parnell was interested in running for the position and assumed Caraway would step down at the end of her husband’s term. Caraway, however, surprised everyone with her declaration that she was running to retain her seat in the 1932 election. With the help of fellow Populist Louisianan senator Huey Long, a long time friend of her husband, she successfully won the seat, which she kept for two terms before losing it in 1945.

While an ambitious politician and close advisor to her husband during his political career, she was not an active campaigner for women’s rights, shying away from DC’s social functions and stating “after equal suffrage I just added voting to cooking and sewing and other household duties.” She did, however, endorse and vote for the Lucretia Mott Equal Rights Amendment in 1943 and was an ardent advocate of the New Deal policies that supported her largely agrarian state.

Frances Perkins (1880-1965)

Frances Perkins’ appointment as the secretary of labor in 1933 made her the first women to serve in a presidential Cabinet and thus the first female member of the Executive Branch. Educated at Mt. Holyoke, she initial was a physics and biology teacher before becoming interested in social reform. She moved to New York City, where she earned a Masters in sociology and economics from Columbia University. When she married in 1913 she determined to keep her last name and argued her right to do so in court. Prior to her Cabinet appointment, she served as the secretary of the New York Consumer League in 1910, was appointed to the New York State Industrial Commission in 1918 and became the commission’s chair in 1926.

During her time as Secretary of Labor she spearheaded many of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs—including unemployment relief, minimum wage laws and the development of Social Security. Her commitment to social justice made her an unpopular figure with both Congress and big business, though she had the support of the majority of workers’ unions. She resigned after FDR’s death in 1945 and went on to serve on the U.S. Civil Service Commission.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

Shirley Chisholm achieved an impressive number of firsts throughout her political career: She was the first African American Congresswoman, the first African American woman to run for president and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. After serving as a teacher and member of the New York State assembly, she ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1968. In her role as a Representative she fought for the underprivileged, pushing legislation to improve access to education, protect immigrants’ rights and expand government-funded food stamps. As both an African American and a woman, she faced two fronts of discrimination—yet she confided that she was surprised to find her gender the larger setback. “I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black,” she is famously quoted as having said. “Men are men.”

In response to the discrimination she faced she decided to make history again four years later by running for the presidential nomination in the 1972 Democratic Primary. Though the campaign was poorly managed and she only won 28 delegates, Chisholm’s campaign paved the way for future campaigns. She herself claimed that she ran because “somebody had to do it first.”

“The next time a woman runs,” she said, “or a black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start.”

Sandra Day O’Connor (1930-)

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, making it the last branch of government to have a woman member. O’Connor spent her childhood on her family’s cattle ranch before becoming one of three women to study at Stanford Law. She struggled to find work after graduating law school in 1952 and briefly worked for the San Mateo county attorney before getting married and moving overseas with her husband. She eventually settled in Arizona where she served as Assistant Attorney General, became a State Senator, was elected to the Maricopa County Superior Court and eventually was elevated to the Arizona State Court of Appeals. Two years after her appointment to the Court of Appeals she was nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1981 and was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate.

O’Connor had a reputation as being a firm but just judge and is typically remembered as a moderate conservative. Despite mostly voting in line with the politically conservative bloc of the court, she nonetheless was the swing vote in many cases. As a federalist, she was dedicated to determining whether or not a law fit the intentions of the Constitution and focused on honoring the letter of the law over setting sweeping precedents. She served for 24 years before retiring in 2006 and has since then started iCivics, an online civics education site.

Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011)

Though several women have run for the presidency, Geraldine Ferraro has the distinction of being the first (and one of only two) to be a candidate on a major political party’s presidential ticket. In 1984 she was Walter Mondale’s choice for vice presidential pick, and though Mondale failed to win the presidency, her role as a serious candidate represented one more step to a woman in the White House. Before becoming the VP candidate Ferraro had worked as a teacher in the New York public school system, become a lawyer in 1960 and was elected Assistant District Attorney for Queens County in 1974, where she created a special victim’s bureau. She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 and served three terms in office. While Ferraro was a talented public speaker and a quick study to national politics, she faced claims of financial misconduct and a very popular incumbent president during her campaign.

After the 1984 campaign, Ferraro did not seek re-election to the House and instead shifted to diplomatic work, serving as an alternate delegate to the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission under President Clinton. She co-hosted the political talk show Crossfire from 1996 to 1998 before leaving politics to work in the private sector prior to her death in 2011.

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.


Kelsey Hanf is a writer, educator, and proud geek. A graduate of Wellesley College, she currently lives in Boston and travels every chance she gets.