Hillary Clinton has been dogged by criticism that she is “playing the woman card” in her campaign for president. When she depicts herself as a champion of women, calls attention to sexism, or seeks to evoke enthusiasm about the possible election of the United States' first female president, she challenges the notion that American politics is and ought to remain sex blind.
Yet more than a century of women's engagement in presidential politics reveals that the woman card is on the table the moment a female aspirant enters a presidential campaign, no matter how much a candidate or her opponents may seek to exploit her sex or wish it away. Her supporters and detractors may debate whether the woman candidate's gender is a burden or opportunity, unique qualification or utterly irrelevant. In so doing they continue a dispute that first unfolded during Reconstruction when Wall Street broker, and radical (yes, the two were then conjoined) Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to seek the presidency.
Late 19th century Americans discussed what a “petticoat government” might mean for the nation, and a Georgia newspaper was not alone in suggesting that it would likely be a “vast improvement” over the Grant administration. Woodhull's bid, however, was derailed by a scandal touched off when her mother revealed to the press that her daughter was living with two men — her current and her ex-husband. A media frenzy ensued, fueled by the assumption that this fact proved decisively what many suspected: Woodhull was not a virtuous woman.
The candidate struck back furiously at the double standard, calling the revered Protestant minister Henry Ward Beecher a hypocrite for preaching morality while having an affair with a parishioner. In so doing, Woodhull triggered an infamous trial (the Beecher Tilton case) as well as an obscenity charge that left her in prison on Election Day in 1872.
The sex of a woman presidential candidate has never been ignored in any ensuing race. The only question has been, and remains, whether the “woman card” plays high or low and what else is in the hand. It should come as no surprise that for much of American history, the woman card has played low. Decades after the ratification of women's suffrage in 1920, Americans evinced resistance to even the idea of a woman president. As late as 1964, when Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith ran for the Republican nomination, polls indicated that some 40% of respondents affirmed they would not vote for a well-qualified woman for president even if she was nominated by their political party.
Prevailing doubts about the viability of a woman standard bearer, and in the case of Shirley Chisholm's 1972 campaign, an African American woman candidate, persisted throughout the 20th century. As primaries proliferated, the costs of media saturated campaigns soared. No candidate of whatever sex could rise without institutional support and robust financing. But elites and donors were especially reluctant to squander their resources on women, whom they perceived as surefire losers in a presidential race.
Dealt weak hands, women candidates such as Smith and Chisholm engaged in a kind of bluff. They both ran as fierce independents, beholden to none and willing to challenge the hackneyed traditions of American politics and the corruption that was part and parcel of big campaign money. “Unbought and Unbossed” the poorly financed Chisholm boasted in a memorable campaign slogan. Smith and Chisholm thus sought to redefine their marginalization as an advantage.
The campaigns of women presidential contenders have long energized and excited their followers. Hillary Clinton's predecessors, however, quickly discovered they could not necessarily count on those many imagined would be their logical constituents.
In 1870 a New York journalist insisted, “Women always take the part of each other, and if the women can be allowed to vote Mrs. Woodhull may rely on rolling up the heaviest majority ever polled in this or any other nation.” Woodhull enjoyed no such advantage. Not even suffragists, in the main, supported her quixotic run. Those who were intrigued by Woodhull beat a hasty retreat when she was enveloped by scandal.
Nearly alone among suffrage leaders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton expressed dismay at their behavior.
“We are ever cruel to each other,” she mourned. “This is one of man's most effective engines, for our division, & subjugation. He creates the public sentiment, builds the gallows, & then makes us hangman for our sex.”
“If Victoria Woodhull must be crucified,” Stanton added, “let men drive the spikes & plaite the crown of thorns.”
A century later, Chisholm learned that even the feminists and African American male activists whom she considered close colleagues would not necessarily stake her presidential bid.
No female candidate in American history has held higher cards than the ones in Clinton's hand today. She has been greatly supported, in principle if not always in practice, by the challenges that dedicated feminists, civil rights activists, and other progressives posed to the status quo. Decades of social and political change, as well as the 2008 race, have altered the game. Win or lose, Clinton holds the woman card. Its 2016 face value will be revealed in the months ahead.
Ellen Fitzpatrick is the author of "The Highest Glass Ceiling."