Beginning in the 1870s, more than 200 women have “sought, been nominated, or received votes for the office of President.” The Highest Glass Ceiling by Ellen Fitzpatrick hones in on three of the most groundbreaking presidential runs. Readable yet packed with well-researched information, this book makes me hungry to learn more about women’s history in presidential politics. It serves as an excellent introduction, and provides ample leads in the lengthy Notes section for those who wish to delve deeper.
The book is divided into three biographies, book ended with a brief prologue and epilogue that discuss Hillary Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 campaigns in the context of this history. Not much is devoted to Mrs. Clinton, whose biography, political record, and relationships have been exhaustively covered during recent years. Instead, we are introduced to Victoria Woodhull, the first female presidential nominee, Margaret Chase Smith, a widow who took over her husband’s seat in the House and ended up becoming the first woman in the Senate, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in the House of Representatives.
Their stories are told chronologically, starting with an overview of their early lives and then launching into detail about their political triumphs and troubles. Fitzpatrick poses the question, “What kind of woman would seek the presidency?” The answer I came away with was “the kind of woman I’d like to know.” They are presented as sympathetic human beings even as their ambitions are laid bare. More time is spent on the policy positions and campaign strategies that defined their careers, compared to the scandals and bad press that dogged them — which is a relief after experiencing the two-year dog fight culminating in the 2016 election.
Fitzpatrick supplies just enough historical context for readers to understand the candidates’ places in history. It does help to recall your high school or college U.S. History courses, as it jumps from the Reconstruction era, to the Depression and World War II, and finally to the Civil Rights and second-wave feminist movements. The author admits in the notes that Woodhull is notoriously difficult to write about due to the lack of reliable sources of information on her life, but she more than makes up for it by fleshing out the stories of Chase Smith and Chisholm.
These women were chosen for the extraordinary mark they left on history, which cannot be said of most failed presidential candidacies. Woodhull was a spiritualist, suffragist, and Wall Street broker who was certain women would have the vote by 1872. Margaret Chase Smith, a moderate-to-conservative Republican, was beloved by her Maine constituents, ahead of her fellow policymakers in her support of military defense spending to prepare for World War II, and no friend of Joseph McCarthy. Shirley Chisholm, who passed away in 2005, was the daughter of West Indian immigrants who fought their way up by their bootstraps. She spoke Spanish with her Puerto Rican constituents, and was constantly challenged to prove that she stood for all the American people as a black woman, neither favoring blackness nor womanhood as she stood her progressive ground.
To me, it was the story of one total badass after another, and even though I knew the outcome of their presidential bids, I still rooted for them. Of course, I don’t know whether they would have had my vote at the time (indeed, the “women for women” assumption has always been false). I do know, now, that Hillary Clinton was not the first woman accused of lacking the stamina to be commander-in-chief, and that to anyone with a cursory knowledge of history, “woman presidential candidates [are] no longer exotic.” I felt, by the end of this book and for the first time in my life, that I might run for president! Surely the cost of running a successful campaign will knock me down from this high, but I will enjoy it while it lasts and add these ladies to my list of American heroes.
The ceiling remains, but it has far more than 18 million cracks in it tonight.
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