Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.
January 27, 1964: It hasn’t happened since 1888, has never happened before in a major political party, and it almost didn’t happen today—but a woman is now making a serious, full-fledged run for the Presidency.
Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine is seeking the Republican Presidential nomination this year, and one of the reasons she is running is to make it easier for other women to do the same thing in the future. When discussing her reasons for her campaign, she noted that one strong argument in favor was that: “women before me pioneered and smoothed the way for me to be the first woman to be elected to both House and Senate—and that I should give back in return that which has been given to me.”
She made the announcement to a cheering, and quite relieved, crowd at the Women’s National Press Club. Though there had been expectations for months that she might run, not even her closest friends knew for sure what she might decide. In fact, she carried two statements with her—one that said she was running, and another that said she was not—so she didn’t decide until the last possible minute.
But after listing all the reasons that people had given as to why she shouldn’t run, she delighted her audience by saying: “I have decided that I shall enter the New Hampshire Presidential Preferential Primary and the Illinois Primary.” She later said that “only time will tell” if she would run in the other 14 primaries.
Since she has little money to spend, it will be a campaign conducted without paid workers, or radio, TV and newspaper ads. But because New Hampshire is Maine’s neighbor, she is quite well known there, and as the only woman running for the Presidency, there should be plenty of free publicity in the local papers as they cover her campaign appearances.
She was not at all impressed by some of the reasons advanced by those who thought she should not run: “There are those who make the contention that no woman should ever dare to aspire to the White House—that this is a man’s world and that it should be kept that way – and that a woman on the national ticket of a political party would be more of a handicap than a strength.”
It was also 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 conceivably be a good cause, even if a losing cause.”
She then noted that all of the reasons used to discourage her from running for President—her sex, long odds against winning, an alleged lack of physical stamina, lack of funds and a professional political organization, interference with her other work—were first advanced against her running for the House and Senate.
She rejected such negativism then: “I welcome the challenge and I look forward to the test.”
The first woman to run for President was Victoria Woodhull, who ran in 1872 as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party. Belva Ann Lockwood ran in 1884 and 1888 as the National Equal Rights Party’s candidate. Even in the most recent of those three elections, women could only vote in the Territory of Wyoming, where they had won full suffrage in 1869. Women had voted in Utah Territory from 1870 until 1887, but in that year Congress revoked the right of Utah women to vote as part of a package of anti-Mormon legislation entitled the Edmunds-Tucker Act.
In 1920, long-time party activist and Kentucky suffragist Laura Clay’s name was placed in nomination for President at the Democratic Convention, though it was strictly an honorary gesture. Cora Wilson Stewart, also of Kentucky, received similar nominations in 1920 and 1924, and got one vote on the first and fifteenth ballots at the 1924 Democratic Convention.
Interestingly, the woman whose Presidential campaign has gotten the most votes so far is Gracie Allen, who ran on the “Surprise Party” ticket in 1940 as a publicity stunt for the Burns and Allen radio show. She received 42,000 actual write-in votes, ten times as many as Belva Lockwood’s highest total of 4,149 in 1884.
Senator Smith is an experienced and respected lawmaker. She was first elected to the House in 1940 and served there until elected to the Senate in 1948, becoming the first woman to serve in both Houses of Congress. On June 1, 1950, she delivered a 15-minute “Declaration of Conscience” on the floor of the Senate in which she denounced McCarthyism, and she still maintains the same kind of independence and courage today. She’s a welcome addition to this year’s field of candidates, and her campaign should go a long way toward ending the prejudices and stereotypes that still plague women in politics even in these modern times.