In the early-mid 1960s, Atlanta was still very much segregated. In 1973, Atlanta elected a black mayor. His name is on the airport now. Things move fast sometimes. And you don’t always realize a barrier has fallen until so many have run past it that in retrospect it seems inevitable.
A bunch of small, halting, irregular steps. And then one day, the Berlin Wall is down. The same thing recently happened with female presidential candidates. Kirsten Gillibrand’s failure is the proof.
Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to have her name formally entered into nomination at the 1964 GOP convention. She ran in several primaries, but only got more than 3% once. This wasn’t a vanity candidacy. Smith got elected to Congress in 1940, the Senate in 1948, and was a military/national security expert.
Shirley Chisholm was next. The two-term congresswoman from Brooklyn competed in the 1972 Democratic contest, becoming the first African American candidate of any gender, along with the first woman in her party.
Her results were similar to Smith’s. With more primaries available, she got more opportunities, but didn’t reach double digits in any of them. Still, it was another step forward. In addition to being a female pioneer, Chisholm blazed a trail that led to Jesse Jackson, and eventually Barack Obama.
Then nothing. Sandra Day O’Connor reached the Supreme Court in 1981. Geraldine Ferraro was on the Democratic ticket in 1984. But no women ran for a major party presidential nomination again until Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder in 1987.
Her tenure as a candidate was short, ending months before 1988 voting began in Iowa. It was best known for tears during her exit speech. Eventually it became the basis for a Saturday Night Live skit.
More nothing followed. Part of the issue was the lack of female senators, governors, and vice presidents. Donald Trump aside, that’s where most presidents and most serious presidential candidates come from. Prior to the 1992 midterms, there were two currently serving female senators, and very few governors.
Two-time Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Dole was taken more seriously as a candidate for the 2000 Republican cycle than any previous woman. When she dropped out in October 1999, she was trailing George W. Bush by up to 50 points in polls. However, she was ahead of most other candidates, having finished third in the Iowa Straw Poll.
Once again, a female candidate didn’t even make it to the voting start line. Next, ex-Senator Carol Moseley Braun quit 4 days ahead of the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucus. Unlike Dole, nobody thought she was a contender.
This was the history Hillary Clinton faced in 2008. Not only was she the first female front runner, she was the first to win any delegates since Shirley Chisholm. It would appear Hillary’s close call, falling just short to one of the strongest primary candidates in recent American history, was a major leap forward.
She checked another important box when she cleared the field of any presumably serious challengers ahead of the 2016 contest. Bernie Sanders shocked the world, while options like Joe Biden stayed away.
I’d argue the big change happened in 2019, not with Clinton. Before this year, she and Dole were the only women taken seriously as contenders. Make no mistake, Hillary Rodham, attorney, had no political future. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady turned Senator, turned Secretary of State, won the national popular vote. While she definitely achieved plenty on her own, her husband made her elected political career possible.
Elizabeth Hanford was a talented mid-level government employee. Elizabeth Hanford Dole became a cabinet secretary, viable presidential contender, and senator. While Margaret Thatcher, wife of a businessman, became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are the first upper level female American presidential contenders to build a political career without their husbands.
Prior to this year, it was a contest between Chisholm and Carly Fiorina in 2016.
That’s the significance of Kirsten Gillibrand leaving the race without a trace. She’s a qualified candidate. Who got there on her own. Nobody cared. She could have been Jay Inslee. Had she run any time between Margaret Chase Smith and Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand would have been an exciting female candidate.
Now, eh whatever. Elizabeth Warren has the best odds to win the nomination on PredictIt. Kamala Harris is sitting in fourth place, and led a couple of surveys after the first debate. Amy Klobuchar made the Final Ten. Tulsi Gabbard needs two more qualifying polls to make the October debates. She already has her 130,000 unique donors.
Marianne Williamson is following in the immortal footsteps of Alan Keyes, and getting more attention than her resume demands. She hit the donor mark too, and just landed her first 2% result on an approved poll. John Delaney, Michael Bennet, Tim Ryan, and others would trade places with her in a millisecond.
None of their husbands, past or present, have had a political career to speak of. Women have reached effective parity in the Democratic presidential contest. Nikki Haley, similarly self-made, is already a front runner for the 2024 GOP nomination.
When Kirsten Gillibrand goes from intriguing to surplus in 12 months, without any horrible missteps, a barrier has fallen. It took too long, but serious female presidential candidates are here to stay.