A Very Presidential History Lesson
In case all the ads on TV, newspapers, and even Youtube haven’t made it clear: it’s election season. And no matter what party or candidate you align with, this election has been a milestone for the democratic process. And one of those milestones is that it’s the first time a woman was nominated as a major party candidate. But it isn’t the first time a woman has run for President.
We asked Laura Pearce, a historian and Ohio native, to tell us more about Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood – the first TWO women to run for President of the United States:
While Hillary Clinton is the first woman to run for President of the United States as the nominee of a major party, she is far from the first woman to run for President. That illustrious title goes to (depending on how technical you want to get) either Victoria Woodhull or Belva Lockwood. Two women who ran for election during the 19th century – before women even had the right to vote!
A friend of famed business mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria Woodhull was a stockbroker and newspaper editor in New York City. She was outspoken on the issue of women’s suffrage, and in 1870 Woodhull declared her intention to run for President. She ran in the election of 1872 as the candidate from the new Equal Rights Party.
She used her newspaper to promote her campaign – something that would likely be viewed with considerable skepticism today – and eventually spoke on behalf of women’s suffrage before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Financial issues and a public feud with New York preacher Henry Ward Beecher caused her campaign to fall apart shortly before the election.
If Woodhull’s campaign had gone full term, she might have been disqualified from the Presidency anyway. Not because of her gender, but because of her age: Presidents must be at least 35 years old, and Woodhull would have only been 34.
Twelve years after Woodhull’s failed campaign, D.C. lawyer Belva Lockwood announced her candidacy for President. She ran in the 1884 election, also on the Equal Rights Party ticket.
Lockwood is generally recognized as the first woman to run a full, national campaign for President and as the first female candidate to have her name appear on the official ballot. Lockwood campaigned across the country, calling attention to the irony that women could run for office but most were unable to vote.
Lockwood had little chance of winning the election, and in the final tally, she polled with fewer than 5,000 votes. In 1888, Lockwood ran again as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party, but this time she ran a much smaller campaign.
In a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote, Woodhull and Lockwood were pioneers. Both of their campaigns highlighted the need for women to be given full political rights – including suffrage. It wasn’t until 1920, a full 50 years after Woodhull declared her candidacy, that some women would be given these rights. For many women of color, of course, the fight for full suffrage would continue until the Civil Rights Movement.
To learn more about the many other women who have followed in Woodhull and Lockwood’s footsteps and run for President, check out this online exhibit from the National Women’s History Museum. You can also learn more about women and their campaigns for elected office by visiting www.herhatwasinthering.org.
Laura Pearce is an historian by training and has a Master’s Degree in Public History. She works for the History/Technology company HistoryIT and also runs the social media for “Her Hat Was in the Ring,” a project that identifies women who ran for office before 1920.
(images: Nast “Mrs. Satan” caricature of Victoria Woodhull, 1972; Belva Lockwood, 1880s)