Thursday, April 16, 2015
Lately a lot of critics have noted that in the 57 presidential elections from George Washington through to Barack Obama’s re-election, there’s never been a woman nominee of a major political party. That’s true, but it only tells part of the story: Until recent times, there have been significant barriers to women being elected president.
Women didn't get the vote nationwide until 1920—basically a generation after New Zealand—though some states gave women the vote before then. The first woman elected to the US House of Representatives was Jeannette Rankin in 1917, because Montana, unlike many other states, permitted women to vote. She was probably the only woman in world history who was able to vote to give women the vote. The first African American woman, Shirley Chisholm, was elected in 1969.
In 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the US Senate, and only the second to enter the Senate by appointment. The first woman to serve in the US Senate, Rebecca Latimer Felton, was appointed to succeed her husband in 1922. The first female African American Senator was Carol Moseley Braun, elected in 1992 (Full disclosure: I voted for her).
The first woman to become a state governor by election was Nellie Tayloe Ross in Wyoming in 1924. However, she was the widow of the state’s governor. It wasn’t until 1974 that a woman, Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut, was elected without being the wife or widow of a governor.
I mention all that because most presidential candidates come from the US House, US Senate or governors’ mansions. So, women didn’t get the vote until 1920, and didn’t start being elected to these offices until then (or later). That meant it was effectively impossible for women to be considered “serious” candidates for president.
In 1964, US Senator Margaret Chase Smith ran for the Republican presidential nomination, making her the first woman to seek the nomination of a major party. In 1972, US Representative Shirley Chisholm became the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president. She was also the first African American to run for the nomination of a major party.
In 1984, the Democratic Party nominated Geraldine Ferraro for Vice President, making her the first nominee for president or vice president from either major party (she and the candidate for president, Walter Mondale, lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide; I voted for them, of course). 24 years later, the Republican Party finally nominated a woman, Sarah Palin, for vice president, thereby proving that gender alone is not the most important attribute in a nominee for president or vice president.
Hillary Clinton is still the most successful female candidate for presidential nomination of a major party, winning more primary votes than any other woman in US history. The fact that she's the undisputed front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, and that at least one Republican woman is being talked about seriously, suggests that we may—finally—have reached the point where a woman can be considered based on her merit, not her gender.
But someone has to be first. While all of the 44 US Presidents so far have been men, only President Obama is African American. The question now is no longer CAN an African American man be elected president, but is he the right person—as it should be. I think that Hillary’s success in 2008 has pretty much moved the USA to the point where it’s now asking whether a particular PERSON is the right PERSON to be president.
Which is absolutely NOT to suggest that sexism isn’t still there and powerful, because it is. Look at all the media pundits talking about Hillary’s appearance, temperament, or any number of other things they’d never even dream of discussing if she were a man. Clearly, US society—or, at least, the punditocracy—still has a very long way to go.
But when a woman—whether Hillary or someone else—is the nominee of one of the two major parties and is then elected president, it will change everything. Young girls growing up in the USA will be able to see themselves in the White House, and imagine one day being president. African American boys, seeing an unbroken string of 43 white men as president, grew up knowing that the promise that “anyone can grow up to be president” didn’t really apply to them. When Barack Obama became the 44th US President, that all changed. So, too, it will change for girls when the USA FINALLY elects a female president. Actually, ALL children will know that they might grow up to be president, too, regardless of race or gender.
It’s time, America! 2016 with mark the 228th anniversary of the election of the first in a line of exclusively male presidents. The USA must now live up to the promise of its founding and elect the best person to be president. I believe that person should be a woman, and there are at least two Democratic women I’d gladly vote for. I hope I finally get that chance.