"Earn Your Spurs" (Prologued, Season 1, Episode 7)

About this Episode

After 6 weeks of analyzing women's voting and activism, we finally turn to the final frontier: Public Office. From School Boards to the Presidential ticket, join us as we trace the bumpy road of women running for elected office. 

Cite this Site

Sarah Paxton , ""Earn Your Spurs" (Prologued, Season 1, Episode 7)" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective


Episode 7: "Earn Your Spurs" Citations:

Theme Music: Hot Shot by Scott Holmes

Carroll, Susan J. "Woman Candidates and Support for Feminist Concerns: The Closet Feminist Syndrome." The Western Political Quarterly 37, no. 2 (1984)

Curwood, Anastasia. "Black Feminism on Capitol Hill: Shirley Chisholm and Movement Politics, 1968–1984." Meridians 13, no. 1 (2015)

Day, Christine L., and Charles D. Hadley. "Feminist Diversity: The Policy Preferences of Women's PAC Contributors." Political Research Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2001)

Deckman, Melissa. "Guns Are the Great Equalizer: Mama Grizzlies and the Right to Bear Arms." In Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right, 214-41. (New York: NYU Press, 2016.)

Dolan, Kathleen. "Do Women Candidates Play to Gender Stereotypes? Do Men Candidates Play to Women? Candidate Sex and Issues Priorities on Campaign Websites." Political Research Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2005)

Frankovic, Kathleen A. "The 1984 Election: The Irrelevance of the Campaign." PS 18, no. 1 (1985)

Gallagher, Julie A. "On the Shirley Chisholm Trail in the 1960s and 1970s." In Black Women and Politics in New York City, 157-90. University of Illinois Press, 2012

Hannagan, Rebecca J., Jamie P. Pimlott, and Levente Littvay. "Does an EMILY's List Endorsement Predict Electoral Success, or Does EMILY Pick the Winners?" PS: Political Science and Politics 43, no. 3 (2010)

Holland, Jennifer L. "Redefining Women’s Rights." In Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement, 121-47. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020.)

Ladam, Christina, Jeffrey J. Harden, and Jason H. Windett. "Prominent Role Models: High-Profile Female Politicians and the Emergence of Women as Candidates for Public Office." American Journal of Political Science 62, no. 2 (2018)

Murphy, Mary. "When Jeannette Said "No": Montana Women's Response to World War I." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 65, no. 1 (2015)

Paolino, Phillip. "Group-Salient Issues and Group Representation: Support for Women Candidates in the 1992 Senate Elections." American Journal of Political Science 39, no. 2 (1995)

Rudin, Ken "Geraldine Ferraro Broke A Barrier For Women, But Roadblocks Remain" NPR. Mar. 26, 2011. https://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2011/03/28/134882628/geraldine-ferraro-a-political-trail-blazer-for-women-is-dead

Schaffner, Brian F. "Priming Gender: Campaigning on Women's Issues in U.S. Senate Elections." American Journal of Political Science 49, no. 4 (2005)

"Year of the Woman, 1992" U.S. House of Representatives, https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Essays/Assembling-Amplifying-Ascending/Women-Decade/


Episode 7: "Earn Your Spurs" Transcript:

Sarah Paxton

So far, we've discussed the role of women in politics, focusing on their position as influencers of their husbands vote, their efforts to develop an organized movement to enfranchise themselves, and on the expansion of their organizing for full equal rights.

However, we have yet to discuss a crucial part of women's electoral politics: getting elected to public office.

Today, we turn to the history of women running for public office and how the concept of women's issues has shaped the political careers of female politicians.

For Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, I’m Sarah Paxton, and this is Prologued.


Public office was a part of the women's suffrage movement from the very beginning. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an organizer of the Seneca Falls convention that began the women's rights movement, ran for congress in 1866. Victoria Woodhall was the first woman to run for president. She served as the nominee for the Equal Rights party in 1872, with famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate. While these candidates showed that suffragists intended for women to not only participate in electoral politics, but in the government itself, 19th century female candidates for federal offices weren't very successful and garnered little support. Stanton herself only received 24 of 12,000 cast votes. However, women on the local and state levels enjoyed some success during the 19th century, especially in states that granted women the right to vote early.

Kansas allowed women to vote in local elections in 1887, during the Height of the late 19th century temperance movement. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was active in Kansas, including in the small town of Argonia. In 1887, the W CTU made a list of men who they thought would support temperance. A group of anti-temperance men, called “wets” formed a retaliatory secret caucus who, unbeknownst to the WCTU, nominated Mrs. Susanna Salter, the only officer of the WCTU eligible for the office because she lived within the town limits, anticipating that the crushing loss Mrs. Salter was sure to face would humiliate the WCTU. When Mrs. Salter learned from early morning voters that her name was on the ballot, she consented to accept the office if elected. What had begun as a prank to humiliate the female fronted temperance movement ended with the election of the first female mayor in America.

On the federal level, women wouldn't hold office until the 20th century when Montana elected Jeannette Rankin as the first woman in Congress in 1916 after she ran on the platform of women's suffrage. Central to many female politicians campaigns were maternalist politics, which use the tenants of true womanhood to argue that women were morally superior and well equipped to care for American society in government office. When running for the Montana State Legislature, Rankin stated that “It is beautiful and right that a mother should nurse her child through typhoid fever, but it is also beautiful and right that she should have a voice in regulating the milk supply from which typhoid resulted.” But maternalist politics proved to be a double edged sword for early female candidates. Rankin's first vote in Congress after being sworn in was to determine whether the United States should join World War One. Rankin, representing the poor rural mothers of her district’s concern for their family members being shipped off to war, voted against the measure. While this aligned with the maternalist politics she had espoused during her career as a politician, it was also viewed as weakening the suffrage movement by suggesting that women were too tender hearted to make such important decisions.

While other women joined the US House of Representatives in the years after Rankin’s election and the passing of the 19th amendment, many of these women inherited their late husband’s seat rather than being elected on their own merits. Part of this was surely because women running as wives of previously elected men fit the supportive wife characteristic of a true woman; but it was also because there was no concerted effort to support and elect female candidates. So, while the women's rights movement faded in the aftermath of the 19th amendment, female candidates failed to pick up steam and, between 1919 and 1970, the average total number of women in the House of Representatives and the Senate was around 13. It wasn’t until the feminist movement in the 1970s that effective lobbying organizations geared toward the election of female candidates to federal office finally emerged

In 1970, the 91st Congress ended before the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by both houses, and feminist activists grew increasingly frustrated with government officials, much as the sufferagists worked to replace congressmen who oppose the 19th amendment, As Dr. Hamlin talked about in Episode 3, prominent feminists believed that the only way to enact real change for women was to increase the representation of women in government, political parties, and public participation.

One of these activists was Dorothy Height, who President Barack Obama referred to as the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement. Born in Washington, DC, Height became involved in the Civil Rights Movement while working at the YWCA in Harlem, New York. It was there that she met famed activist Mary McLeod Bathune and subsequently joined The National Council of Negro women, an organization of black women, of which Height was appointed president in 1957. During her tenure as president of the NCN,W the organization deepened its commitment to the Civil Rights Movement, with Height joining historic demonstrations with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, including the 1963 March on Washington.

In 1971, Height joined with hundreds of feminists, including leaders like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, native activist Ladonna Harris, and key female figures of both the Democratic and Republican National committees to form the National Women's Political Caucus.

The NWPC was, and still is, dedicated to expanding women's representation in politics, especially seeking out seats at the table as elected officials and party delegates with a great deal of success, especially with the Democratic National Committee. While women made up 13% of DNC delegates in 1958, in 1972, that number jumped to 40%. The NWPC supported the campaigns of women like Bella Abzug. In conjunction with being a founding member of NWPC and a critical advocate for the ERA, Abzug was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who ran and won a Congressional seat representing the west side of Manhattan before losing a 1976 bid for the US Senate.

While prominent Women of Color were represented in the founding membership of the NWPC, it was still overwhelmingly white. Another founding member of the NWPC with Shirley Chisholm. She tried to bridge the gap between the white and Black feminists of the NWPC, pushing them to focus on issues impacting women of color and of lower socio economic class, demonstrating a willingness to work with the white feminists of NOW, even becoming the vice president of the New York City chapter in 1967. And, while in office, she hired a staff of mostly women, half of whom were Black. She often found herself having to defend this decision to work within the system during the Black Power movement, arguing that this was a difference in tactics, not ideology. In 1972, Chisholm double down on this dual commitment and announced her bid for President of the United States, again making history as the first woman to vie for the Democratic Party's Presidential Nomination.

While always a longshot nominee, Chisholm garnered diverse support for her presidential bid, earning the endorsements of the Black Panther Party and both Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem running to serve as Chisholm delegates at the convention. Running under the banner of “ unbought and unbossed,” Chisholm continued her advocacy for both racial and gender justice. However, Chisholm was a controversial candidate and did not earn the vocal support of many she expected to back her. The National Black convention declined to endorse her and Black feminists like Dorothy Height and Pauli Murray remained silent. Similarly, while regional and local chapters of NOW enthusiastically supported Chisholm, prominent leaders of NOW, including Bella Abzug, offered tepid support at best and minimal financial backing. Ultimately losing the nomination by a wide margin, Chisholm’s campaign demonstrated the limitations of 20th century feminism. 12 years later, those limits appeared again with the first woman on the Democratic Presidential ticket: Geraldine Ferraro.

In 1984. The Democrats were facing a tough election against an extremely popular incumbent President Ronald Reagan. Further, as Dr. Susan Hartman explains, they had learned that women were now an essential part of the electorate, who could no longer be overlooked.

Susan Hartmann

In 1980, women's turnout actually surpassed men so the percentage of all eligible Women who could vote who voted was higher than men's turnout. And that has continued until today. In the last midterm elections, 8.5 million more women voted than men. So that's a significant difference in voting.

The first time that there was a considerable amount of public attention to what we have called “the gender gap” was in the 1980 election when 54% of all male voters voted for Ronald Reagan, but only 46% of all women voters voted for Reagan. In other words, the majority of men voted for the Republican the majority of women voted for the Democrat. And since then that pattern has continued in every election. A majority of women vote for the Democratic candidate, a majority of men vote for the Republican candidate.

Sarah Paxton

So, by the 1984 election, women were not only voting in higher numbers than men, they were voting more for Democrats, which made securing the amorphous women's vote essential if Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale were to defeat Reagan. Acting on polling data that suggested that a woman on the ballot would capture the women's vote, Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate, making her the first female vice presidential nominee of a major political party.

Geraldine Ferraro was the daughter of Italian immigrants who worked her way through both college and law school, eventually becoming an Assistant District Attorney of New York, the elected representative of Queens in 1978, and, finally, becoming a part of Democratic Party leadership in 1981. While Ferraro mirrored the campaign tactics of previous generations, playing on traditional gender roles and referring to herself as a “Queens housewife,” the polling data was flawed. The belief that polls showing widespread support for a female vice-presidential nominee also meant widespread support for Ferraro was an error in political judgment. Assuming general support for female candidates meant support for a specific candidate overlooked both partisanship and less overt forms of sexism while radically overestimating the importance of a VP nominee against a popular incumbent like Reagan. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost, and a woman did not appear on a major party's presidential ticket again until 2008 with Sarah Palin.

While women's push for the White House stalled, the 1990s are considered the major turning point for the female candidate. 1992 is referred to as the Year of the Woman. 11 women were nominated for the Senate with six winning and 106 were nominated for the House, 24 of whom won the races. It kicked off the rise of women of color in office. This number tripled the number of women in the us senate and As the highest number of women to be elected to the US House of Representatives and a single election, according to Georgetown, Professor Michele Swers, who you heard from last time, this rush of women was due to a confluence of factors.

Michele Swers

So when you think about women getting elected, some of this is just about infrastructure. And the structure of American elections is such that there is a great advantage for incumbents. And incumbents are mostly men, and then come and get reelected it rates of over 90 95%. So if you're coming into an institution that is already filled with male incumbents who are more likely to get reelected, then it's hard to break in. The one thing that happened in 1982, is there are a lot more retirements. Some of that came from the fact that 1992 was after a census year and there's redistricting. And some of that came from the fact that there was some big scandals at the time going on in Congress with a check overdrafting scandal and others, and so a lot of members decided it was time for them to retired, spend more time with family. So that left more open to the opportunities for women to step forward the first place to run.

Sarah Paxton

But it wasn't just retirements that allowed women to both run and win, it was a “women's issue” year. Bill Clinton was running on an economic and healthcare platform that appealed to women, reproductive rights continued to be the biggest single issue voter policy, and the election came on the heels of one of the biggest scandals in American politics.: Anita Hill's testimony that Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Hill’s accusations turned the hearing into a national controversy mired in both gender and racial prejudices. Thomas himself, as you will hear, took umbrage with how Hill's accusations were handled by both the Senate and the press. arguing the public nature of these accusations was due to the fact that he was a black man nominated for a powerful position

Justice Clarence Thomas

This is not a closed room. There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is circus. This is a disgrace.

And from my standpoint, as a Black American, as far as I’m concern it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in anyway deign to speak for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas. And it is a message that unless you cow-tow to an old order this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured, by a committee of the US senate rather than hung from a tree.

Sarah Paxton

In addition to the references to deeply entrenched racist stereotypes of black men, the hearing was also defined by the gender dynamics it represented. The public image of a woman, especially a Black woman, detailing the sexual harassment she endured to an all-white male Senate committee spurred a new drive to elect women to public office.

Michele Swers

So in those hearings, Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. There were certainly more attention to the fact that well, there weren't any women on the Judiciary Committee, why aren't there more women in Congress until you had women explicitly running on that? So Dianne Feinstein had an advertisement that said, you know, 2% is good enough for milk, but not for the number of women being representative legislature. There were only two women in the senate at that time. And so there was attention to the need for women in office, there was attention to issues of sexual harassment where there hadn't been before. So it's just a set of issues that made people think might be more women in elective office. But those issues were issues that tend to favor the Democratic Party and so you saw democratic women candidates getting elected.

Sarah Paxton

Note what Dr. Swers just said—1992 spelled the year of the Democratic woman. When we discuss women as a monolith, as a singular unit, we overlook many important fractures in the female electorate, and especially among women in office. One of these is partisanship. As Dr. Hartmann said earlier, a gender gap had gained public attention since the 1980s, in which more women tended to vote for Democrats than Republicans. And as Dr. Hartmann explains, this is for a number of reasons.

Susan Hartmann

When we think about the gender gap, are there a number of things that we need to keep in mind. First of all, it's not just women moving toward the Democratic Party or women favoring them Democrats, but it's also men moving toward the Republican Party or favoring Republicans. And we might also, just as well call it a marriage gap as a gender gap. Women voting Democratic tend to be single, they tend to be women who work outside the home. They tend to be Women of Color. So it's not just that all women of all different shapes and sizes tend to vote Democratic, but particular groups of women do. And then another thing about the gender gap is that it's not so much about women's rights issues. That's part of it. Some women are Democrats because they believe that the democrats will defend Roe versus Wade will defend the right to choose, and some women prefer the republican party for the opposite reason,

Sarah Paxton

A lot of this partisanship is driven by campaign financing. Where's the money coming from? Donor interests directly relate to what the “winning” campaign strategy and candidate is: who represents the right issues? What are the right stances? What characteristics are priorities?

Consider, for instance, two major donor groups in American politics, EMILY’s list and the Susan B Anthony list. EMILY’s list, which stands for “early money is like yeast,” meaning it makes the dough rise, developed in 1985 to support pro-choice candidates and by the 1992 Year of the Woman, was one of the biggest sources of funding for Democratic candidates. In reaction to EMILY’s list, conservative women established the Susan B Anthony list in 1993, aiming to raise money for anti-abortion candidates, initially focusing on women but eventually expanding to support anti-abortion men as well. The incredible amount of money these two organizations have raised has earned EMILY’s list accusations of being a Democratic “kingmaker” and ensured that all candidates, but especially women, always have to declare their side in the abortion debate.

Abortion is one of those issues that, while all candidates’ views are important, women are especially judged on their stance. This is not just because of the money that hinges on their answer, but also because it is seen as a “woman's issue.” We've talked about the concept of women's issues on this podcast for a while now, typically in regards to the characteristics women used to justify their involvement in politics. The same traditional gender roles of a wife and mother that were used to expand women's influence in the political realm have also defined what issues are considered explicitly women's. Further it defined what was not within women's expertise.

Let's go back to Jeanette Rankin again. Remember her vote against World War One. Her argument for a mother's pain was used as proof that a mother's vote was too soft for such weighty concerns. The women's movement of the 1970s tried to broaden this narrow definition of women's issues, expanding into economic and military policymaking. But they were seen as drifting outside their lane and, in some instances, were completely shut out. Take for instance, Bella Abzug’s time as the co-chair of Jimmy Carter's National Advisory Committee on Women.

Susan Hartmann

Bella Abzug, who was leading feminists and was actually appointed to a commission under Jimmy Carter, got fired from her position because she challenged his budget. She was a member of the House of Representatives, very brassy, very in your face, a leading feminist. She worked with Shirley Chisholm, they were in Congress at the same time. Famous for her hats. And she ran for the Senate lost her seat and Carter gave her this appointment as chair of a commission to advise him on women's issues. And they did not get along it. Rosalyn Carter had told him he shouldn't appoint her. She was probably right. And she said, “as a commission representing women, we need to tell you that these budget cuts have a particularly harsh effect on women and children.” So this commission under Abzug were defining women's issues much more broadly to include economic policy, and even military policy because they also said, we're spending all this money on the military and we need to spend it on people who need it here at home

Sarah Paxton

In recent years, while women's issues are still largely defined by women's idealized roles as wives and mothers, expansion of what implicates women's roles as mothers, which Bella Abzug attempted to convince Jimmy Carter of, has become more accepted.

Sarah Palin, who was only the second woman ever to be the vice-presidential pick for a major political party when she joined John McCain on the 2008 Republican ticket, famously coined the line “what's the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick.” Even after she left political office, she referred to herself and her supporters as “Mama Grizzlies.” And in 2014 speech to the National Rifle Association, she stated that “maybe our kids could be defended against criminals on the spot if more Mama Grizzlies carried,” casting the conservative view of the Second Amendment in terms of a mother protecting her family.

On the other side of the aisle, California Senator Kamala Harris gave a speech at the 2017 Women's March on Washington in which she discussed how, in each office she had held, she was almost always the first woman, especially woman of color, to ever hold that office. She stated that women were always coming up to her, asking her to talk about women's issues and, in a line she would repeat multiple times during her presidential campaign, she responded, “I am so glad you want to talk about the economy.”

This expansion of what is considered a “woman's issue” also forces a reconsideration of the female candidate in modern politics. Now that women's issues and participation touch on nearly every aspect of American politics, a possibility that was barely considered at Seneca Falls in 1848. However, the presence and governing styles of modern elected women shaping the political landscape

Mayor Nan Whaley

Well, I'm from Indiana, and when I decided to go to UD my parents, they weren't like crazy about me going over to Ohio and they were like, “well, if you're gonna go to Ohio, they decide presidents and so the only reason why you're able to go to college is because of Bill Clinton so you better, like, help him out.”

Sarah Paxton

That is Mayor Nan Whaley, the mayor of the city of Dayton, Ohio. Mayor Whaley was elected in 2013 and guided Dayton through the unprecedented challenges of the Ohio opioid crisis and the 2019 mass shooting in the Oregon district of downtown Dayton, which drew national attention and visits from both Ohio senators and President Trump. While she doesn't consider herself as having broken any glass ceilings. She believes that both she and her female colleagues have very different experiences from their male colleagues and bring new necessary perspectives to their offices.

Mayor Nan Whaley

There's all different ways to be a woman leader and like, one of the things I like right now is I'm not a first generation woman elected, right? I'm in the second generation and second wave—just like second wave feminism, there's a second wave of us—and that allows us to be much more broad than, and fill out the role more than, the people that had to break the glass ceiling. So, getting behind the people that break glass ceilings is really exciting.

But it is different. I mean, we are socialized as women in our country and in our communities different than men. And that makes our leadership different and makes our perspective different. And it also, I think, has an opportunity to make the tables we put together more inclusive and more thoughtful around that idea of inclusivity. Because so often, particularly on matters—like in cities, you know, 70% of people that work in cities are men, they've been driven by men most of the time in America, and they're run by men. And so what I noticed, and it's just a natural, I think, it happens is not only you know--for example, I’m the mayor, woman mayor of Dayton, but then our city manager is a woman and our law director is a woman and you start to see a lot more women in leadership throughout the organization. Once that starts happening, and I think that's healthy for the organization has diverse thought process and seeing things in a different set of shoes.

Sarah Paxton

If Mayor Whaley is right, and the election of women to public offices in which they have a broader influence opens the door to a more inclusive elected body and an ever-increasing number of women in office. What does that say about the effects of the 2016 and 2018 midterm elections? Of the record number of women, both conservative and liberal, running for office in 2020? Of the third woman to be a vice presidential nominee of a major US political party? What does the future of women's political involvement look like?

We'll explore these questions next time, on the season one finale of Prologued.