I think I was in fourth grade the first time I heard a teacher say, “Women can do so many things now. Someday soon we’ll have a woman president.” Well, that was more than half a century ago and we are still waiting. During the heady years after World War II, many people assumed that women who had performed so well as workers and military during the war would move on to become more active in public life. Move stars like Katherine Hepburn and Rosaline Russell gave girls role models for energetic, capable women, but the country preferred to idealize women who played up to men and accepted their roles as subordinates in the hierarchy of home, family and work.
Only three women have come even close to being seen as serious contenders to become president of the United States. The first was Victoria Woodhull, who ran a spirited but spectacularly unsuccessful campaign in 1872. After all, women weren’t even allowed to vote at that time, much less run the country. I wrote a few posts about Woodhull on this blog during the 2012 presidential race.
A hundred years after Victoria Woodhull’s attempt, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm began her campaign to get the nomination of the Democratic Party. In 1972, she was well-known as the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. That had happened in 1968 and Chisholm had made her mark by refusing to be quiet and follow the dictates of politicians in her party. She fought to serve her constituents by supporting bills to provide federal funds for child care facilities, and she opposed the Vietnam War saying “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and cacism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.” (Unbossed and Unbought, p. 97)
Chisholm’s 1972 campaign for the presidency was never taken seriously by political leaders. She spent very little money on the campaign and was not able to hire strong staff for her efforts. The country was not ready for an African American president and especially not for one who was a woman. Throughout her career, Chisholm noted that being a woman had put more obstacles in her path than being black. Despite her failure to gain support for her nomination, (Senator George McGovern became the Democratic candidate.) Chisholm continued to be an active member of Congress until 1982 when she retired. After her retirement from politics, she taught for several years at Mount Holyoke College. Her experience continues to inspire liberal politicians and especially women and African Americans who are still struggling to be fully represented in government. And her book Unbossed and Unbought, which she published in 1970, remains a valuable document about a politician who fought for her constituents and was never swayed by money or political power during those halcyon days before the invention of PACS or the ravages of corporate funding for campaigns.
And now in 2015, we have the announcement that Hillary Clinton will make another attempt to win the Democratic nomination for president. The details of the campaign and the words of her opponents will be far
different than the ones that greeted her predecessors, but the theme remains the same for many of them: women are excellent accessories to a successful candidate, but not to be trusted with the tough job of running the country. Will 2016 be the year that proves those opponents wrong? Will Americans finally decide that a woman president is just what we need to deal with the multitude of problems in the country and the world? One thing that my fourth-grade teacher might say is that it will take a woman to clean up the mess that male leaders have given us.
As 2012 ends, many people are looking back toward history rather than ahead. After all, what is ahead for us except the dreaded “fiscal cliff” a phrase designed to frighten us all. One of the major entertainment successes of the fall, aside from the inevitable fantasies of hobbits and talking animals, has been the story of Abraham Lincoln and his successful handling of a government crisis. The popularity of this movie has pushed the history book on which it was based Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals to the top of the bestseller list here in San Francisco. It isn’t often that the general public agrees that history can be fascinating and can perhaps even give us insight into what is going on in the world today. We’ll never know how Lincoln would have handled the current fiscal crisis, but seeing how the men in that rambunctious Congress is certainly a reminder of what is going on in Washington today.
This sudden surge of interest in historical figures has cheered me as I look over the year’s progress in this blog. History is filled with figures who can both entertain and enlighten us. It’s a pleasure to read more about them and get to know them. Understanding how they thought and acted sheds a new light on what’s going on in our own world. One of the people who has been introducing women’s history to audiences for years is Bonnie Hurd Smith whose website and blog describe her busy life helping businesses and nonprofits craft their histories into stories for the public. Her book “We Believe in You” tells the stories of twelve women who made their mark on American history. If you don’t know her work, 2013 is a good time to learn about it.