Living Columns & Blogs

U.S. is closer than ever to first woman president

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers her concession speech on Nov. 9 in New York City.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers her concession speech on Nov. 9 in New York City. TNS photo, file

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

When Chelsea Clinton addressed the audience at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown with just six weeks left in the 2016 campaign, she said that in private moments, her mother reflected on the historical importance of winning the Democratic nomination to become the first woman president of the United States. Although Hillary Clinton did not win the presidency, her historic nomination, through images and words, continues to inch the country forward on our path to inaugurating the first woman president.

As heartbreaking as the results of the 2016 campaign are for Clinton and her supporters, her path — as first lady of Arkansas and the United States, U.S. senator and secretary of state — has been groundbreaking.

Whenever any speaker addresses an audience, there are short-term goals: to entertain, inform, persuade and even inspire. And then there are long-term goals. By seeking the U.S. presidency, Clinton and others have taken steps to realize the long-term goal of making a woman the U.S. president.

Opening the door

At the Cow Palace in San Francisco on July 15, 1964, Margaret Chase Smith, the reserved Republican Maine senator who made a bid for the presidency, was greeted with cheers from a reception of supporters who declared, “She is still in the race!” Vermont Sen. George Aiken nominated her at the convention, and one admirer noted, “Every woman, Republican and Democrat, owes a debt of gratitude to Margaret Chase Smith because she has opened the door for a woman to serve in the presidency.”

Eight years later, “unbought and unbossed” New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm received 151 of the delegates’ votes at the convention in Miami. She wanted to effect political change with the power of her delegates. At a speech she said, “I’m just so thankful that in spite of the differences of opinions, the differences of ideology, and even sometimes within the women’s movement the differences of approaches, that here we are today at a glorious gathering of women in Miami.”

She also noted that people are more sexist than racist. Despite the uphill battle, others — Pat Schroeder in 1988, Elizabeth Dole in 1999 and Carol Moseley Braun in 2004 — continued contributing to the long-term goal of a woman president.

As the most successful female candidate thus far, Clinton noted in 2008 in her concession speech: “You can be so proud that, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories — unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable, my friends.”

She echoed the same sentiment in 2016 at the Democratic National Convention when she said: “Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president. Standing here as my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come. I’m happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. I’m happy for boys and men — because when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone. After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit. So let’s keep going until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves to have.”

The path to a woman president

The governorship has historically been the pathway to the presidency — except when it is not, which most recently has been the case. Nonetheless, for historically underrepresented presidential aspirants such as women, it would be wise to keep an eye on the women who are governors. Mary Fallin, Republican from Oklahoma; Nikki Haley, Republican from South Carolina; Susana Martinez, Republican from New Mexico; and now, Oregon’s new Democratic Governor Kate Brown — who has become the first openly LGBT governor — are women to watch for the presidency.

Also in this election, Kamala Harris became the second black woman elected to the U.S. Senate in California; Ilhan Omar from Minnesota became the first Somali-American legislator; and Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina senator in U.S. history.

Programs that support women interested in public office, such as Emerge — an organization that gives women who want to run for public office training and support — are important to help fill the pipeline. These are important wins for cultural acceptance, because just as the election of the first African-American as president has not erased difficult race relations in the United States, the election of the first woman president, whenever it comes, will not remove all sexism and misogyny. These “firsts” expand what it means to be a political woman in the United States.

For many reasons, the 2016 presidential race has been historic: There were initially 17 candidates competing for the Republican Party’s nomination. Businessman Donald Trump defied all predictions to emerge as the nominee, despite no previous political experience. Clinton, running for president for the second time in the Democratic Party, won the nomination, but after a bruising series of contests that revealed deep divisions among constituencies.

When the votes were totaled, Trump won a decisive victory. He won key battleground states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

In her concession speech, Clinton said, “to all the women, especially all the young women, who put their faith in me, nothing has made me more proud than to be your champion.”

The factors that contributed to Clinton’s defeat invite scholars to continue to examine the still complicated path to the presidency that women in the United States face, however, even her unsuccessful bid is a push forward on the path to a woman president.

Nichola Gutgold is a communications arts and sciences professor at Penn State and author of the book “Paving the Way for Madam President.”