Introduction

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Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm's 1972 candidacy for the Democratic Party's nomination galvanized communities of color, young people, and urban voters who felt marginalized by politics as usual. This photograph captures several enthusiastic Shirley Chisholm supporters holding signs and Chisholm’s trademark poster in the audience at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

In July of 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first woman to be nominated by a major party for president of the United States. Also a candidate in the 2008 primary race for the Democratic nomination, Clinton’s career in presidential politics builds on an over 140-year legacy of women who have run for the nation’s highest office in a system that, until now, has by law and custom kept women outside the oval office.

Victoria Woodhull and Belva Ann Lockwood each ran for president at the helm of the Equal Rights Party in the 1870s and 1880s, decades before the ratification of the Constitution’s nineteenth amendment granted women the right to vote. Concurrent with the work of women’s rights activists and suffragists, each of their candidacies represented a radical forward-thinking interpretation of women’s rights to citizenship and political participation that would take a generation for the American government to recognize.

By the mid-twentieth century, with women’s rights to vote and hold office secured, Senator Margaret Chase Smith and Representative Shirley Chisholm broke new ground by running for presidential nominations by major parties. Though unsuccessful in seeking the nomination, each showed that a woman can and should be taken seriously as a legitimate contender for the US presidency, paving the way for Hillary Clinton’s historic 2008 primary campaign and 2016 nomination.