Most American women didn’t win the right to vote until the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, but the first female candidate for president came nearly 50 years earlier. In 1872, Ohio native Victoria Woodhull made history when she ran as the Equal Rights Party candidate against incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant. Her platform included such progressive reforms as an eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage and an end to the death penalty, and she rounded out the groundbreaking ticket by selecting abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate (though apparently without his permission).
Woodhull was something of a pioneer even before she launched her bid to shatter the political glass ceiling. She’d spoken before Congress regarding equal voting rights, and had opened the first woman-owned brokerage firm on Wall Street. Woodhull failed to score any electoral votes on Election Day, and there’s no record of how she fared in the popular vote. Even if she had won, she would have been barred from taking up residence in the White House—though not because of her gender. The Constitution requires that presidents be at least 35 years old upon their inauguration. Woodhull would have been just 34.
In the years since Woodhull’s trailblazing campaign, dozens of other women have made bids for the presidency. Despite not being able to vote for herself, suffragette Belva Ann Lockwood garnered 4,149 votes in 1884. Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith later won 227,007 votes in the 1964 Republican primary, but fell short of the getting the nomination. Eight years later, Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm was the first woman—and the first African American—to seek the Democratic nomination. Lenora Fulani became the first woman to get on the ballot in all 50 states when she ran as a third party candidate in 1988, and Hillary Clinton later achieved the best ever showing by a woman in a primary in 2008. In 2012, the Green Party’s Jill Stein netted over 450,000 votes in 2012.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to accept the nomination of a major party. The former first lady, senator and secretary of state defeated Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and ran against Republican Donald Trump in the general election. Clinton received 65,853,514 votes—nearly 3 million more than Trump—but lost in the Electoral College.
In 2020, a record number of women ran in the Democratic primary.