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Women’s History Month Primer: Running for Office

At the highest level of elective office in the United States, we’ve seen only a few women go after a major party nomination. The author, a professor of communications arts and sciences, extracts some lessons from their campaigns.

The files in Margaret Chase Smith’s Senate office, neatly labeled “Presidency” and “Vice-Presidency,” were getting thicker and thicker in the years since she had arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1949. At first she was merely “pleasantly flattered” by those urging her to run for higher office, but in 1964 Margaret Chase Smith of Maine took the plunge. Here are some lyrics to a campaign song that was written for her:

“We want a woman in the White House, we want some hist’ry to be made… To make the country hustle, give Uncle Sam a bustle, and make the Gen’ral Staff the ladies aid. We want a woman with some know-how… Someone to carry on the fight... She’d eliminate a war and be home again by four, she’s a woman and a woman’s always right. She has a secret weapon that would cast a peaceful spell. It’s “Bingo” played by Hotline with Nikita and Fidel. Evacuate the Pentagon; On this we’re standing pat… But leave the building standing and we’ll put in a laundromat.”

Could you imagine a campaign song for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign that included references to BINGO and a laundromat? I cannot.

By examining the races of women who have run for president between Margaret Chase Smith’s in 1964 and Hillary Clinton’s in 2008, we can learn a few things that are helpful for women running for political office at any level. Democrat Shirley Chisholm's 1972 campaign energized elements of a newly emerging women's political movement.Democrat Shirley Chisholms 1972 campaign energized elements of a newly emerging womens political movement. In 1972 when New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm ran for president, she often said that being a woman presidential candidate was more daunting than being a black candidate. The media reported that Chisholm admirers conceded privately that she had at least two strikes, her sex and her race, against her. She acknowledged later that, “While I realize that my campaign was an important rallying symbol for women and that my presence in the race forced the other candidates to deal with issues relating to women, my primary objective was to force people to accept me as a real, viable candidate.” Her campaign, although courageous, remained symbolic. In 1988 the press made a big deal of a tearful Pat Schroeder during her withdrawal speech, but the presidential campaign of the Colorado congresswoman had other more serious problems. She got in the race late, never really announcing that she was running—The New York Times scooped the candidate. She said after the race: “I learned that I don’t look like the president.”

In 2000 Elizabeth Dole, later senator from North Carolina, was widely described as “the first serious woman presidential candidate,” but she dropped out when she realized that she simply could not compete financially with George W. Bush and Steve Forbes. Her campaign message acknowledged the historic nature of a woman president with the slogan “Let's Make History,” but the candidate struggled to resonate with younger women who could not appreciate Dole's achievements in the starchy 1950s as one of only a handful of women at Harvard. Her heavy narrative-based feminine rhetoric was at odds with the masculinity-centric postures voters were used to hearing from a presidential candidate. She told biographical stories about growing up in the South and her spiritual journey. She was often viewed by audience members as an attraction, as women brought their daughters in droves to see ‘a woman’ run for president. But the interest outpaced the support.

In 2004 the ebullient Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, the first and as yet only African-American woman elected to the Senate, failed to launch as the only woman in a sea of Democratic hopefuls. Under-funded, she dropped out a few days before the Iowa caucuses. There is one similarity running through each of these presidential campaigns. Every one of these women was a symbolic candidate or one whose campaign never got off the ground.

Enter Hillary Clinton in 2008. She almost won. No one doubted her toughness. She moved from a feminine to a masculine style of communication with ease, which I describe to my communications students as rhetorical elasticity. In the short span of 44 years (that happens to be my lifetime exactly), women went from being symbolic presidential candidates to bona fide contenders. From my teaching and research about women presidential candidates, I have developed a list of practices I believe are especially useful to women running for political office. I call them the FORCES:

  1. Forcefully announce! That is, make a firm announcement of your candidacy. Don’t “test the waters”—hold your nose, jump in and declare you are running. “I’m in to win” not “let’s see how this goes.” This was a problem for Pat Schroeder. She never announced and as a result her campaign looked experimental.
  2. Out-smart everyone. Know your facts. When women don’t know something, it is magnified by the press, public and pundits. This is a take-away from the Sarah Palin candidacy for vice president.
  3. Revitalize. You will need stamina. By the time most women run for office, they are not young, so take care of yourself. Clinton is 15 years Obama’s senior, but she did not lack for energy on the campaign trail.
  4. Cut a predictable figure in your clothes. Develop a clothing style that is easy to wear, simple and predictable. Same with your hair. Don’t go changing because your change will make the news before or instead of your ideas. This is true for some men, too—remember the $400 John Edwards haircut?—but men can revert to the established uniform for male politicians (dark suit and red or blue tie). Women, treacherously, have more options: bright colors or subdued; skirt or slacks. And typically women’s hair is more complicated: long, short; to color or not to color. Pick an easy style and commit.
  5. Exhibit rhetorical elasticity. An ability to move easily between a traditionally masculine to a feminine style of speaking is especially important for women candidates because a woman’s toughness will be scrutinized. In this sense, Shirley Chisholm had an elastic delivery as did Hillary Clinton. Chisholm was right when she said “I have a way of speaking that does something to people.” In her announcement speech she said: “We live in revolutionary times. The shackles that various groups have worn for centuries are being cast off.”
  6. Slough off media criticism. It will come. It never pays to complain about the media in the midst of a campaign. You may increase the enthusiasm of your base, but at the expense of making an enemy of a cadre of powerful people.

There has been steady positive change for women presidential candidates in the United States. The trick is to learn from history and keep the positive momentum going for women running at all levels of office.

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