- Too Young, Too Strident, Too Radical, Too Dangerous:American Women Pursue Political Voice
United states, August of 2020: on the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which removed legal restrictions from American women's right to vote, a woman is on a major-party ticket for an American presidential election.1 Much has changed in the near century-and-a-half since Victoria Claflin Woodhull, representing a tiny, marginal political party, made a bid for the presidency, and much has changed in the ways that historians have understood, analyzed, and narrated those changes. The essays gathered here reflect some of the dynamics associated with those changes, including how "politics" has come to connote not only formal political structures of party politics and government but also informal arenas of power and public influence.
When Woodhull appeared on the national ballot in 1872, representing the "Equal Rights" party that she herself had spearheaded, she—like the women candidates who would follow her—had already crafted a remarkable career.2 As a founding partner of Wall Street's first female-owned brokerage house, and as one of America's earliest woman newspaper publishers, Woodhull had made a Benjamin Franklin–like transformation from modest beginnings to well-heeled and well-known public figure. Famous for her unorthodox ideas about women's sexuality, clairvoyance, and the abolition of the death penalty, as well as for her flamboyant personal style, Woodhull also challenged the radical economic and political theories of the day. Unlike Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who argued that [End Page 245] women needed to be brought into the political sphere, Woodhull insisted that women's concerns with class and economic insecurity were inherently political. That she was too young to be president—she would not have reached the constitutionally mandated age of thirty-five until after the inauguration—seems not to have been a concern, since no one (probably even Woodhull herself) expected her to win.3
Woodhull was preceded and followed by women of equal grit—and equally underpowered political machines. Abolitionist and women's rights advocate Lucretia Coffin Mott (1848) and legal powerhouse Belva Lockwood (1884 and 1888) were early standard-bearers in a list of more than four dozen stouthearted women—young and old, Black and White—who battered at the White House door. After Lockwood, more than seven decades elapsed before Margaret Chase Smith (1964), Charlene Mitchell (1968), Shirley Chisholm (1972), and Lenora Branch Fulani (1988, 1992)—the latter three of whom were African American—renewed the assault on the bastion of America's white, male political stronghold.4 Then, in 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton—described by many as "too strident"—almost got in.
Women are also scarce in the congressional chambers of power. As of the 2020 presidential election, the US Senate has only twenty-six women, and the 102 elected to the House of Representatives in 2018 compose less than 24 percent of that body. Though women first arrived in Congress in 1916 (Montana's Jeannette Rankin), only since the 1990s have women represented sizeable proportions or leadership—a reality that reflects, in part, the fact that since the 1980s women voters began to outnumber men. Nearly two-thirds of the 325 women elected to the House since 1916 arrived after 1992—and nearly half of those after 1998.5 [End Page 246]
Women's bids for office are, of course, only one aspect of the story. Since the 1990s, increasing scholarship on voting trends post-1920 has also shaped a fascinating narrative. For example, we now know that despite the myths and fears promulgated by historians and politicians alike since 1920, women's voting choices have not been only gender-driven. Most early suffragists—recognizing such factors as race, ethnicity, class, and region—anticipated neither a national woman's party nor a solid women's voting bloc. Indeed, looking at the one hundred years since 1920, Christina Wolbrecht points out, "gender is not the most salient political identity shaping electoral behavior for most women (or men)."6 The percentage of eligible women voting grew steadily from 30–35 percent in 1920 until the 1964 presidential election...