The first US woman President – the elusive quest


Hilary Clinton was not the first woman to run for the President of the United States.

In 1872, Victoria Chaflin Woodhull became the first woman to run for the President of the United States. The irony – she herself was ineligible to vote!

Black Americans got the right to vote in 1870 – very soon after the abolition of slavery, but women had to wait another 50 years to get the right to vote.

Why were women prevented from voting in the first place? The argument was that women needed to focus on the household and let men dabble in politics. One of the big voices against giving women the right to vote was the organization National Association OPPOSED to Woman Suffrage. In the 1910s it published the pamphlet below explaining why women should not be allowed to vote. Several reasons were listed, but I found this one the most interesting – “because in some states, more voting women than men will place the government under petticoat rule.”



So the woman suffrage opponents were not as concerned about granting women the right to vote, as much as being under women rulers. And that explains the key reason behind women in the US not getting the top job in the country.

But why did the mental block against women leaders exist in the US, when the rest of the world continued to have women heads of government?

The answer – Democracy! Yes, DEMOCRACY – the system that was supposed to be for the people, did not seem to be for women.

MONARCHY – on the other hand, allowed women to become rulers in the absence of a male heir – long, long before the advent of democracy. Although, it did not improve the social status of women, but it warmed the male population to the concept of a woman leader.

The 19th century alone saw several powerful women rulers – Queen Victoria of the British Empire, Isabella II of Spain and Empress Dowager Cixi of China.


The world acknowledging the leadership abilities of women, is best evident in the evolution of the game of chess. In earlier versions of the game, the queen was non-existent – the deputy to the King, being the minister. The Queen replaced the minister in the 10th century, when chess first encountered European royal courts. But her movement was restricted within one diagonal square. In the 15th century – inspired by powerful women such as Queen Isabella of Spain, the Queen was given the freedom to roam the entire chessboard, making her the most powerful piece on the chessboard. By then, Europe and the rest of the world had acknowledged the power and authority, a queen could wield.

Irrespective of the country, there are 2 factors that go hand in hand towards attaining the highest position in government:

  1. acceptance of the candidate by the voters
  2. a platform to launch the bid for the top job.

Acceptance of the candidate by the voters: As highlighted earlier, countries that experienced female monarchs through the course of their history, seemed more accepting of female leaders than countries that didn’t.

So when Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the first woman Head of Government in 1960, to Sri Lankans she was another woman ruler in a line that started as early as 47 BC with Queen Anula of Anuradhapura.

India’s Indira Gandhi too, in 1966 joined the ranks of Queens Razia Sultan and Rudramma, when she became India’s first woman Prime Minister.

The US on the other hand, never had a monarchy – so never a woman ruler. So, to the common man, the woman was just the manager of the household, as highlighted by the thinking of the National Association OPPOSED to Woman Suffrage.

Acceptance of a female President by the populace is less of an issue now – finally, in the 21st century! In a survey I conducted recently, though I had a 48% to 52% participation between women and men, an overwhelming majority – 71% felt that it was high time that the US had a woman President.

A platform to launch the bid: The launch platform is another key factor in attaining the Prime Ministership or Presidency. Family ties has been a key launch platform for women leaders in several countries around the world. Srimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became a natural choice for the top post after a period of turmoil following the assassination of her husband Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike. India’s Indira Gandhi rode the popularity of her father Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) to become India’s first woman Prime Minister.  Hillary Clinton too first caught the public eye during the Presidential tenure of her husband, Bill Clinton. And she almost made it – almost!

In the US though, the Vice Presidency and Governorships are the two most popular platforms to launch into the Presidency. Thirteen former vice presidents have later become president. So far, only two women– Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008 – have been ever nominated for vice president, both alongside presidential candidates who eventually lost.

Getting more women on the Vice Presidential ticket demands a higher proportion of women in the executive and legislative branches of the government. On the Executive side, only 31 women have held Cabinet positions so far. But 19 of these were from the last 4 administrations – so there is a steady increase, albeit at a very slow pace.

The legislative side has had an equally poor showing – the current 114th Congress comprises a mere 19% women representatives – 74% of them being Democrat and a measly 26% Republican.

So the key factor in the US now, is the launch platform. And the key to resolving that, is higher participation by women in the political system – as legislators or the top posts in various government agencies.

This aligns with the survey response regarding key traits that the respondents wanted to see in the candidate for the first woman President.

Leadership at the helm of a government or business organization was the top trait, followed by previous experience in Congress.



One of the quotes from my survey summed it up well:

“The odds of becoming president are low to begin with. But, given the disproportionate representation in Congress in favor of men, the USA is more likely to produce male candidates. However, I think the reason that there are not more female representatives is because of historical disenfranchisement and social gender norms.”

Among women leaders across the world, Gro Harlem Brundtland – Norway’s first female Prime Minister stands out. She served as Prime Minister for 3 terms between 1981 and 1996. During her tenure, she appointed women to almost half of her cabinet posts – and this informal quota became a benchmark – so much so that 40% of government posts in Norway, have been held by women ever since. Norway also became the first country to enshrine a similar quota for boardrooms.

The chart below depicts the spread of women leadership across the globe. Besides the US, Canada, Russia and Japan are glaringly missing women leaders. The key to overturning this trend, is a higher participation and representation of women in the political arena. Men across the globe have been writing legislation for women since the dawn of time. It’s high time that women started writing legislation for themselves!


So another woman candidate for President in 2020? The list of potential candidates is long – Sen Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Maggie Hassan, Sen Kristen Gillibrand, CIA Deputy Director Avril Haines, Gov. Mary Fallin – and the voter is ready to support the right candidate – finally!!

One thought on “The first US woman President – the elusive quest

  1. So interesting! I’d never thought about the way monarchies can be more progressive than democracy, and how that could be impeding the collective imagination & character of the US. I can’t wait for the inauguration of the fourth woman president.

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