5 Women, 56 Years, 4,936 Delegates: The History of Women Winning Primaries

Last Monday, Iowans became the first to have a say in the Democrat’s Presidential Primary process. Iowa had a total of 41 delegates up for grabs during the Caucuses held last week; the state will have an additional eight superdelegates should no candidate have a delegate majority by the time of the Democratic National Convention this July.

Last year, a total of six women entered the expansive Democratic Primary field; however, only Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and Representative Tulsi Gabbard remained in the race for Monday’s Caucuses. Warren led the field of women, and came in third overall behind Senator Bernie Sanders and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Warren is also expected to garner some of Iowa’s state delegates, although the total number remains unclear. Klobuchar came in fifth overall, but is still expected to leave the Caucuses with some delegates. Gabbard failed to win any delegates.

Warren and Klobuchar will now join a mere handful of women who have won primary delegates in U.S. history—bringing the total up to seven. 

Women began vying for the presidency before they even had the right to vote. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for President of the United States, nearly 50 years before it would be legal for her to vote. She ran as the nominee for the Equal Rights Party, despite being unable to vote and too young to hold the position, and she continued to be a staunch advocate for women’s suffrage after her loss.

Despite Woodhull’s early run, no woman candidate won a primary delegate for almost a century—when, in 1964, Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican Senator from Maine, entered the Republican Primary. Smith had a long career full of political firsts: she was the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate, spoke as a surrogate for incumbent President Dwight Eisenhower during the first televised presidential debate in 1956.

In January 1964, Smith officially announced her bid for the nomination at the Women’s National Press Club. When asked which Republican candidate she would support for the presidency, Smith responded: “I must answer that I’m a candidate for president and I’m not supporting anybody else.”

Smith competed in three states during the Republican primary: New Hampshire, Illinois and Oregon. She won a total of 27 delegates and came in second in delegate count during the Republican National Convention—losing to the nominee Senator Barry Goldwater, who would go on to lose to President Lyndon B. Johnson in the general election.

“There is always a periphery story about a convention, and women are often in it,” the LA Times observed. “Wednesday one woman was no longer in the periphery. She stepped out of the context and into history. She was able to do what no other woman has since this country began—be formally nominated at the national convention of a major party for the office of President.”

Representative Shirley Chisholm, who became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. House in 1968, launched her own campaign for the presidency in 1972. The “Unbought and Unbossed” candidate was barred from the primary debates and only included on the ballot in 12 states, but despite both the systemic barriers of race and gender and the roadblocks put up by the Democratic National Committee, Chisholm won 28 delegates across the 12 states and went on to earn 152 delegates at the Democratic Convention. Chisholm garnered extra delegates when Hubert H. Humphrey released his delegates before the first Convention ballot.

While hundreds-off from the needed delegates to clinch the nomination, Chisholm hoped for a brokered convention to use her 152 delegates to negotiate a Black running mate, a woman Cabinet Secretary and a Native American Secretary of the Interior. Unfortunately, Senator McGovern had 1,729 delegates and easily received the nomination without Chisholm’s delegates or requests.

“I want history to remember me,” Chisholm wrote in her autobiography, “not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman to lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.” 

Ellen McCormack ran in the 1976 Democratic Primary as a single-issue protest candidate: an anti-abortion candidate voicing her opposition to the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973 and the party’s pro-choice platform. McCormack won votes in five states and won a total of 22 delegates during the primary process, and used her time at the Convention to voice her opposition to Roe. McCormack ran for president again in 1980, as the Right to Life Party nominee. While she had little impact on the Democratic Party and its platform in the long run, she is still only one of five women to win delegates in a Democratic Primary. 

Of course, the more recent history of women running for president begins in 2008, when the Democratic Primary became a battle for delegates between then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. On June 7, 2008, Clinton ceded her loss and urged her supporters to back Obama’s bid for the presidency, having won 1,920 delegates.

The 2016 primary season saw two women seek major party nominations: Clinton launched her second presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination and Carly Fiorina entered the crowded Republican primary field. Fiorina garnered some media attention and support during the early part of the primary, but went on to only win one delegate during the Iowa Caucuses before dropping out of the race. Clinton won 2,383 committed delegates, and, by the time of the Democratic National Convention in July, had the support of 2,814 delegates, including 609 superdelegates.

It’s been 148 years since the first woman presidential nominee entered an election—yet only five women in U.S. history have ever won primary delegates, only one has been the nominee of a major political party and none have served in the Oval Office.

Margaret Chase Smith said she was running to “pioneer the way for a woman in the future, to make her more acceptable, to make the way easier for her to be elected president of the United States,” but her run did not make it easier for a woman to be elected president. Instead, women presidential candidates continue to face harsh criticism, misogyny laden questions of electability and systemic barriers—and even with a woman in the oval office, these problems won’t be solved. Addressing these systemic and pervasive issues requires systemic and pervasive reforms to increase the number of women who run for elected office, up and down the ballot, in the first place. 


Maura is RepresentWomen’s outreach and communications coordinator from Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2019 with an honors degree in social anthropology. To hear more from Maura follow her on Twitter, @further_maura.