U.S. presidential history is filled with “firsts.” First president? George Washington. First president to die in office? William Henry Harrison. First president to serve two non-consecutive terms? That would be Grover Cleveland, who won the 1884 election, lost the 1888 election, then won again in 1892. Cleveland is both the 22nd and the 24th president and the only commander-in-chief to hold this dubious distinction.
But there are other “firsts” in presidential election history that mark the changing of the nation. Not all of them involve the major parties of their day. For a long time, third parties were the only way for anyone who wasn’t a white man to launch a bid for the White House. Below are seven key examples of “firsts” in presidential (and vice presidential) history.
First Woman to Receive Presidential Nomination
The first woman to run for president was Victoria Woodhull, the Equal Rights Party’s nominee in 1872. The party nominated Frederick Douglass as Woodhull’s running mate, which technically makes him the first Black vice presidential nominee. However, Douglas didn’t accept the nomination and he gave stump speeches for Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant, who won that election.
Like many white suffragists, Woodhull resented the fact that Black men had won the vote before white women, and made racist appeals to white men when arguing for white women’s right to vote. Douglass, in the end, decided to endorse Grant.
First Black American to Receive Presidential Nomination
Douglass himself was a minor presidential contender at a couple of conventions: he received one vote at the Liberty Party’s convention in 1848 and one at the Republican Party’s convention in 1888 (the nominee in 1888 was Benjamin Harrison, who became president). However, the first Black American to receive a presidential nomination was George Edwin Taylor in 1904.
Taylor, the son of a formerly enslaved man, was a journalist and politician who’d served as an alternate delegate-at-large at the 1892 Republican National Convention. In 1904, Taylor won the presidential nomination at the convention of the National Negro Liberty Party, also known as the National Liberty Party. The party was skeptical of Republican incumbent Theodore Roosevelt’s loyalty to Black Americans. This skepticism was justified—Roosevelt later sold out his Black Republican allies in the 1912 election.
First Catholic President
Anti-Catholicism was rampant among white Protestants in the early 20th century. The banning of alcohol with Prohibition was tied up with bias against Catholic immigrants, fueling the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorism against them in the 1920s. The first Catholic to receive the presidential nomination from a major party was New York Governor Al Smith, an anti-Prohibition Democrat who lost the 1928 election to Republican Herbert Hoover.
When the Catholic senator John F. Kennedy ran in the 1960 Democratic presidential primaries, party leaders were skeptical that he could win in the general election. Many Protestants believed Catholics had “dual loyalties” to the Vatican and the United States and that, if elected, a Catholic president would follow the orders of the pope (for instance, some feared Kennedy would ban birth control).
But after winning West Virginia in the primaries, party leaders grew more confident in Kennedy, and he went on to win the nomination and the presidency, becoming the first Catholic president.
First Black American and Woman to Seek Democratic Nomination
The year that Nixon won his first presidential election, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman to win a seat in Congress. Four years later, the New York representative entered the Democratic primaries, making her the first Black American and the first woman to seek the party’s nomination (Frederick Douglass and Margaret Chase Smith were candidates at the Republican National Conventions in 1888 and 1964, respectively).
Chisholm lost the nomination to Senator George McGovern, who then lost in a historic landslide to Nixon. Although she’d known she probably wouldn’t win, she’d also understood that her pioneering presidential campaign would open the door for other Black Americans and women to run in the future.
First Black President
The first Black American to win the presidential nomination from a major party was also the first Black American to become president: Barack Obama. As the Democratic candidate, he defeated white male opponents in the 2008 and 2012 elections, serving two terms as the 44th U.S. president.
His candidacy (and presidency) was a historic milestone for the United States, but it also sparked a backlash. One campaign, for example, promoted the unfounded “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
First Woman to Receive Major Party Presidential Nomination
In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to campaign for president on a major party ticket. The former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state under Obama ran as the Democratic candidate against Republican Donald Trump. Clinton’s historic campaign ended with a victory for her opponent, Trump.
First Woman and Woman of Color Vice President
On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris became the first woman and first woman of color vice president. Then-candidate Joe Biden nominated Harris in August 2020 during the Democratic party’s first “remote” national convention. Harris, whose mother immigrated to the United States from India and whose father immigrated from Jamaica, was the first person of African or Asian descent to become a major party’s vice presidential candidate.
Harris was only the third woman to receive the nomination from a major party. The first was Geraldine Ferraro, who ran with Walter Mondale on the 1984 Democratic ticket, losing to Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. The second was Sarah Palin, who ran with John McCain on the Republican ticket in 2008, the year of Obama’s historic victory.
The American Presidency with Bill Clinton
Explore the history of the U.S. presidency across six themed episodes: race, extremism, the struggle for rights, presidential vision and global power.