In the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin put more of the spotlight on women in politics (or lack thereof). Had either of their campaigns succeeded, one of them would have been the most powerful woman in American history. But they weren’t the first women to blaze that campaign trail – there has been a handful of extraordinary women in the 19th and 20th centuries that ran for president, and Women’s History Month is a great time to learn about a few of them.
Margaret Chase Smith, for instance, doesn’t have many sound bites or interviews available to watch, since she was born in 1897. But her election to both the House and the Senate by 1948 was a first for an American woman, and her congressional experience laid the groundwork for her campaign for presidential candidacy in 1964. In Congress, Smith spoke out against the Joe McCarthy’s “hunt” for communists during the Red Scare, created female units in the Navy, Coast Guard, and Army, and supported space travel. The National Women’s History Museum quotes James Webb, director of NASA at the time, as saying “If it were not for a woman, Margaret Chase Smith, we never would have placed a man on the moon.”
A generation later, the United States saw Shirley Chisholm elected as the first African-American female to the House of Representatives and Congress as a whole. As a new member, Chisholm’s preferences for congressional committees were shunted aside and she was assigned to the Agriculture Committee, an area in which she had little experience as a New York City native (and therefore little influence in Congress). Not accepting this, Chisholm worked her way onto the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and eventually the House Rules Committee. Like Smith before her, she ran for presidential candidacy and did not win the nomination, but went on to found the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Political Congress of Black Women.
Neither Smith nor Chisholm were concerned about being the “first” elected woman or African-American woman. Dismissing titles of first black female representative or presidential candidate, Chisholm simply stated that she only wanted to “be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be a catalyst of change.” Even though these women should be remembered and learned from every day of the year, Women’s History Month is a time to highlight them and their accomplishments, and to pay homage to women who have broken ground for those who are walking (or running!) on it today.
April DeJarlais is a Communications Intern with The White House Project