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Commentary: Too Many "Firsts" When Talking About Women Running For President

May 12, 2015

Is America ready to elect a woman to the Presidency? In this edition of The Moral Is, Communication Professor Diane Blair argues that how we talk about women’s presidential candidacies emphasizes their novelty in the presidential political arena and belittles the long legacy of the women’s political leadership and accomplishments.

In 1872 Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency. She declared her candidacy even though women didn’t even have the right to vote at this time. Clearly, Woodhull knew her candidacy was more about making a symbolic point. Since then, approximately 40 women have either run or explored possible runs for the U.S. presidency. Interestingly, most of these women’s campaigns were referred to as an “historic first.” For example, in 1964, Margaret Chase Smith was presented as the first woman to run as a presidential candidate from one of the two major political parties. In 1972, Shirley Chisholm was recognized as the first black woman to run for the presidency. In 1988, Patricia Schroeder was identified as the first woman with children to run for the presidency. In 2000, Elizabeth Dole was portrayed as the first woman who was the spouse of a former presidential candidate to become a candidate herself. And in 2008, Hillary Clinton was characterized as the first former first lady to run for the presidency.

The individual accomplishments of each of these women certainly should be celebrated, but always framing women’s candidacies as “historic firsts” is problematic. Such a framing reinforces the idea that these women’s campaigns are symbolically significant, but not politically significant. While culturally, we admire the pioneering spirit of these women’s efforts, this constant emphasis on them being “the first” plays into enduring anxieties about women wielding presidential power. Political rhetoric scholars Kristina Horn Sheeler and Karrin Vasby Anderson argue that such depictions present women candidates as perpetual novices and emphasize their novelty, which in turn undermines their credibility in this political arena. Such a designation rather than elevating their candidacies ironically functions to stigmatize them, and indirectly communicates that while their campaigns may be opening doors, we, as a nation, may still not be ready to actually walk through them.

Hillary Clinton, one of the most accomplished political women of her time, has declared her presidential candidacy for a second time. She is still characterized in terms of the rhetoric of “the first;” only now we hear people talking about her as the “first viable” woman candidate for the presidency. If it is true that her 2008 presidential campaign created “18 million cracks” in the presidential glass ceiling, maybe 2016 will produce the break-through shattering Clinton and her supporters envision. If Clinton is elected to the U.S. Presidency, it will be important to remember that Clinton’s “historic first” is also a continuation of a long political legacy of the women candidates who have gone before. The first woman president, whoever she might be, is part of an on-going quest for political leadership and power made possible by generations of women’s political activism and achievement. 

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.