The Long, Hard Fight To Finally Get A Woman At The Top Of The Ticket

"On my grave, I want it to say that I was a good mother and that I helped Hillary Clinton become president of the United States in 2016."
Getty/Associated Press

In 1952, when Nancy D’Alesandro was 12, her father ― then the mayor of Baltimore ― brought her with him to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They had to leave the festivities early, but as a consolation prize, he bought little Nancy a stuffed donkey.

“Whoever gets nominated, we’re going to name the stuffed animal” after him, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. told his daughter.

Among the potential nominees that year were Adlai, Estes and Averell ― not names she said she’d heard much in her neighborhood of Little Italy.

But the Democratic nominee ― and thus the stuffed donkey ― became Adlai Stevenson. Young Nancy D’Alesandro grew up to be Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House. And the 1952 gathering kicked off a lifetime of Democratic conventions.

At the 1960 convention in Los Angeles, the then-20-year-old convinced her parents to go to the glamorous Hollywood restaurant Romanoff’s on the night that John F. Kennedy accepted the nomination. As they ate dinner ― with her father grumbling about the high price of the food ― Kennedy himself strolled into the restaurant, stopping by their table to ask how they liked the speech he had just delivered.

“We were like we had died and gone to heaven,” Pelosi remembered. Her father suddenly had no more complaints about the cost of the meal.

By 1984, Pelosi had married, moved to California and started her own career in politics, rising to chair the state’s Democratic Party. That year, she led the host committee for the Democrats’ convention in San Francisco, where Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman ever picked as the vice presidential nominee of a major American political party.

“It would be really hard to explain the thunderous response that happened when Geraldine came on to the stage,” Pelosi recalled. “It was something so spectacular and thrilling ... I’ll never forget.”

This year’s Democratic convention ― which will be Pelosi’s 14th ― will mark another political milestone, as the Democrats officially nominate the first woman to the top of a major party ticket.

While more than 200 women have pursued the presidency since 1872, the year Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for the highest office in the land, no one has come as close as Hillary Clinton.

“Hillary Clinton, when she goes into the Oval Office, she will do so with more experience, more judgment, more eloquence in terms of the issues she cares about than many presidents have in our past. She’ll be great,” Pelosi said. “She happens to be a woman ― that’s an enhancement ― but it is a strong message about how far we’ve come.”

The Huffington Post spoke with Pelosi and other Democratic women who have fought their whole lives to make this moment possible ― from shifting the conventions’ decision making out of those male-only smoke-filled backrooms to electing female candidates to political offices across the country.

These women have waited their whole lives to see a woman in the White House. And they’ll be in Philadelphia later this month to see Clinton accept the nomination.

“On my grave, I want it to say that I was a good mother and that I helped Hillary Clinton become president of the United States in 2016,” said Roz Wyman, who in 1984 was the first woman to chair a major-party convention and has missed only one convention since 1952. “I’ll tell you, I want Hillary so much that it hurts. And I got shingles, I think, from the aggravation of it.”

Historic Moments For

Democratic Women


Elizabeth Cohen of Utah is the first woman to attend a Democratic convention as a delegate. Cohen, a suffrage activist, was originally elected as an alternate but later became the delegate after the man chosen fell ill.







The United States ratifies the 19th amendment, providing women the right to vote. At that year's Democratic convention, there were 93 female delegates and 206 female alternates.

Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, Millie Jeffrey, Gloria Steinem and other women form the National Women's Political Caucus, dedicated to helping more women enter elected office. The NWPC made its first appearance at the Democratic convention the following year, pushing for issues like reproductive rights to be included in the platform.



Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) gives the keynote at the Democratic convention, becoming the first woman and first African-American person to ever give the prestigious address.

Shirley Chisholm becomes the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Chisholm, who became the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968, finished fourth in the delegate count at the convention. Presidential candidate George McGovern names Jean Westwood chair of the Democratic National Committee, the first time a woman holds that spot. President Harry Truman had asked India Edwards to be DNC chair in 1951, but she said she didn't believe the men in the party were ready for it at the time.


The Democratic Party adopts the "equal division" rule, which requires the convention to have an equal number of men and women as delegates.






Geraldine Ferraro becomes the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee, the first time a major political party in the United States puts a woman on its presidential ticket. Two years later, Barbara Mikulski becomes the first Democratic woman elected to a Senate seat not previously held by her husband.

Nancy Pelosi becomes the first female speaker of the House.


Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential nominee, the first time in history that a woman has cleared the way to be at the top of the ticket.

Photos: Associated Press/Getty

The Huffington Post

Sex Objects And Polite Observers

Women have attended every Democratic convention since the first in 1832, but for decades they were just guests and observers, supporting the men running the show. It wasn’t until 1900 that the first woman attended as a delegate, and not until 1920 did women have the constitutional right to vote in the election. That year, 93 women attended the Democratic convention as delegates. More than double that number attended as alternates, however, reflecting their continuing second-class status.

In the 1930s, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt worked to bring more women into the political process: She opened the White House doors to female reporters and helped established the Women’s Division as a full-time permanent entity within the Democratic National Committee.

But the period immediately following World War II emphasized more traditional roles for women. Photographs of women from the conventions in the 1950s focused on them “as sex objects in awkward or foolish poses and in their usual role of ‘cheerleaders’ for candidates in floor demonstrations,” the National Women’s Political Caucus wrote in a history of the conventions.

In 1980, the National Women's Political Caucus put out a booklet on the history of women at Democratic conventions.
In 1980, the National Women's Political Caucus put out a booklet on the history of women at Democratic conventions.
National Women's Political Caucus via Ann Lewis

In 1951, President Harry Truman asked DNC official India Edwards, a former Chicago journalist and longtime party activist, to be party chair. She declined, arguing that men in the party weren’t ready for a woman to lead them.

“I feel that if it were a year earlier, then I might be willing to run the risk,” Edwards said she told Truman. “But it is too close to a presidential election, and if anything went wrong they’d blame it on the woman. ... I’ll tell you, Mr. President, if I were chairman of the committee, I would be so busy protecting my rear I could never look forward.”

But the party was changing ― and so was the country. In 1964, members of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party attempted to be seated as the state’s representatives at the convention in place of the pro-segregation state party’s all-white delegation. Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer became a national celebrity when she delivered a speech rejecting President Lyndon Johnson’s compromise proposal, which would have given the MFDP delegation just two non-voting seats. To make matters worse, he chose the two delegates ― neither of whom was Hamer. The MFDP rejected his proposal.

Four years later, the concerns that many in the party had about their lack of representation spilled out in front of a national television audience when the Chicago convention erupted in violence. Inside the hall, fights broke out, motivated largely by tensions over the Vietnam War. Outside the hall, a small army of police, National Guardsmen and Army troops mobilized by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley clashed violently with thousands of protesters who had come to the city.

“What came out of that was a sense that we needed to open up the process of conventions,” said Joanne Howes, a longtime Democratic activist. “That it shouldn’t just be smoke-filled rooms and these guys making all these decisions. Small-d democrats should be part of the decision-making process.”

Women Get In Formation

Ann Lewis was in her 30s, working for the mayor of Boston, when a friend invited her to an organizing meeting for the National Women’s Political Caucus in the early 1970s. Pioneering feminists like Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, Millie Jeffrey and Gloria Steinem had started the new group to make sure that women, not just women’s issues, would be part of the political process.

“You know that famous ‘click’? That was my click,” remembered Lewis, who was political director for the Democratic National Committee from 1981 to 1985, served in President Bill Clinton’s administration and later worked as a top adviser to Hillary Clinton. “Because here were all these women saying, ‘We work for equality through the political process.’ But equality in the political process? Why is it when you walk through a campaign headquarters, the women are out front making phone calls, doing the work, and the guys are in the backroom doing meetings? We’re better than this. We’ve got more talent than this.”

Convention attendees inside the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena/Coliseum at the 1960 Democratic convention.
Convention attendees inside the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena/Coliseum at the 1960 Democratic convention.
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

Even experienced women involved in political operations tended to be relegated to “helper” roles.

By the time she started volunteering for George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972, Alice Germond had already gone to graduate school, had kids and seen firsthand the war in Vietnam, traveling with her first husband, a cameraman for NBC’s evening news. The time in Vietnam reinforced her opposition to the war and showed her how the situation over there was a lot more complicated than it appeared from the United States.

That experience, however, didn’t seem to matter to the men on the McGovern campaign.

“I would go down there, and I would be allowed to answer the phones at the front desk,” said Germond, a longtime Democratic activist who later served as the secretary of the DNC from 2002 to 2013. “But if there was a tough question on Vietnam or some kind of economic issue ... they had to go to the backroom to the college boys, who were sitting there. It couldn’t help but very vividly strike me that, wait a moment, I was 10 years older, I had two children, I had finished graduate school and I had actually been to Vietnam and seen a lot of what was going on.”

Around that same time, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) was first running for the county legislature. The ballots at one point listed her as “Louis Slaughter,” and a major issue in the race was what would happen to her three daughters when she went to the county seat one night every three weeks for business.

“I assured everybody,” Slaughter said, “that they could stay with their father.”

Early on, the NWPC ― which was then bipartisan ― recognized the importance of the conventions. The group’s goal, according to Steinem’s autobiography My Life on the Road, was to increase “the number and diversity of women and delegates to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1972, and to get the Equal Rights Amendment, reproductive freedom, and other basic issues of equality written into both parties’ platforms.”

‘I Am Literally And Figuratively A Dark Horse’

But as Germond, Lewis and the NWPC worked for change behind the scenes, Rep. Shirley Chisholm decided to step forward and run. A fiercely progressive black congresswoman from New York, Chisholm sought the 1972 presidential nomination herself, jumping into a crowded Democratic field.

I am tremendously qualified,” Chisholm told a newspaper shortly before announcing her run. “I am the only candidate not tied to corporate, banking, labor, or other big interests in this country. I am the only one supported by the common people. I am literally and figuratively a dark horse.”

Over her career, Chisholm focused on issues like labor, education, housing, health care, women’s rights and racial discrimination. Her efforts in the New York state legislature led to unemployment insurance for household workers and protections for female educators who took maternity leave, as historian Ellen Fitzpatrick noted in her book The Highest Glass Ceiling. In Congress, Chisholm pushed to expand the food stamp program and played a critical role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Chisholm, who was the first black woman elected to Congress, was “a wonderful role model for so many of us,” said Carol Moseley Braun ― who herself would become the first (and still only) black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1993. But Chisholm, she added, was “basically ignored by the Democratic Party establishment.”

Rep. Shirley Chisholm addressed the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, in July 1972.
Rep. Shirley Chisholm addressed the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, in July 1972.
Pictorial Parade via Getty Images

Even some of Chisholm’s Congressional Black Caucus colleagues worried that she would be “the candidate of women” rather than “the candidate of blacks.” Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), Chisholm’s colleague and NWPC co-founder, never ended up endorsing her. Steinem did, but Chisholm had to convince her that trying to support both Chisholm and McGovern was unacceptable.

Chisholm didn’t win the nomination at the Miami Beach convention ― she ended up finishing fourth in the delegate count, well behind McGovern. But in her autobiography, Steinem credited Chisholm and her candidacy with bringing the NWPC’s goals to national attention and helping the feminist cause.

The NWPC made its first appearance at the Democratic convention that year, with members going as either delegates or attendees pushing to ensure that feminists were heard. The group managed to insert a “Rights of Women” section with an endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment into the platform, although they weren’t able to get abortion rights included. The McGovern campaign specifically instructed delegates not to support a platform plank on reproductive freedom and allowed an anti-abortion activist to give a floor speech ― something it had promised the women it wouldn’t do.

“You promised us you would not take the low road, you bastards,” said Steinem in a tearful confrontation with McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart, according to Nora Ephron’s account of the convention.

NBC News journalist Barbara Walters (center) talks with feminists Bella Abzug, Liz Carpenter, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan at the 1972 Democratic convention.
NBC News journalist Barbara Walters (center) talks with feminists Bella Abzug, Liz Carpenter, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan at the 1972 Democratic convention.
NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

It’s clear in retrospect, Lewis said, that the NWPC members weren’t treated with very much respect by the Democratic establishment. But she attributed some of their failure to the group’s own leadership, who weren’t experienced enough to arrive with a detailed plan for reaching their goals ― an observation made earlier by feminist author Germaine Greer, who wrote a critical piece about the group’s efforts for the Oct. 1, 1972, issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“By this time it was obvious no clear guidelines for feminist action at the convention could be expected from the NWPC,” Greer wrote.

Feminists debated among themselves whether women holding 40 percent of the delegate slots was really progress at all. Greer argued that “some delegations had simply stacked themselves with token females, wives and daughters and whomever,” just to drive their numbers up.

One notable advancement in 1972 was that, for the first time, a woman of color served as the convention’s vice chair. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke hadn’t even planned on attending, because she was busy running for Congress in Los Angeles and had just gotten married. Unbeknownst to her, the rules committee had selected her for the job. She was, in many ways, the ideal choice: She satisfied African-Americans who wanted a black vice chair and feminists who wanted a woman.

She first heard about her historic role when reporters showed up outside her house.

“They didn’t call me beforehand. I just looked out my window, and NBC was outside with cameras,” said Brathwaite Burke, who would go on to become the first African-American woman to serve in Congress from California.

Brathwaite Burke assumed she’d just be filling in for the convention chairman, presiding over the gathering when he needed to take a break now and then. But that wasn’t what happened: On the last day, the chair took off and she was left to preside for about 14 hours.

Brathwaite Burke had assumed the convention would end early in the evening, so she planned on going out to celebrate afterward and dressed for it. Underneath her white blazer, she wore a red-and-white halter top. Then the TV networks insisted she remove her blazer because it was creating glare.

“I said, ‘I can’t take my jacket off. I have a halter on!’” Brathwaite Burke recalled.

Eventually she had to take her jacket off, and pictures from the 1972 convention show her presiding in a halter top ― no doubt another major-party first.

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke had to remove her jacket while presiding over the 1972 Democratic convention.
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke had to remove her jacket while presiding over the 1972 Democratic convention.
National Women's Political Caucus via Ann Lewis

Indeed, the secretary of the convention told Brathwaite Burke that she’d received a lot of comments from people who were appalled by the vice chair’s bare-armed attire. But the secretary had stuck up for Brathwaite Burke, explaining that it was the TV networks’ decision.

“I wasn’t up there trying to be Hollywood-y or something,” Brathwaite Burke said. “They had forced me to take the jacket off. And it’s unfortunate that in many of the pictures of me presiding at that convention on that last day, I have on a halter top!”

Some men lamented the newly serious role for women. In “Year of the Woman,” a “fantasy” documentary about the 1972 convention, Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald reminisced about the “hurdy-gurdy” of the old days, when “the streets were full of young girls dancing, pretty girls in their skirts and saddle shoes and waving pom-poms.”

For all the missteps, 1972 was still a turning point: It was the first time that women went to the Democratic convention as a force, and their visibility inspired a generation of women to become more active.

Germond, who would serve as secretary of the DNC three decades later, was appalled that reproductive rights weren’t considered important enough to be included in the party platform.

“It gave genesis to a lot of women saying, ‘Whoa, we need to get involved here,’” she said. Germond and some friends started meeting at each other’s kitchen tables and eventually launched the Los Angeles chapter of the NWPC. They surveyed the landscape of races where a woman could run a credible campaign, and by 1976, they had their first female member of the California state Senate.

All over the country, other women were holding similar meetings ― and winning similar victories.

The Equal Division Rule

The march to equality still had its twists and turns. The Democratic Party slid backward with the 1976 convention in New York, as female representation dropped from 40 percent to 34 percent of delegates.

Millie Jeffrey, a social justice activist and a co-founder of the NWPC, had thought that her home state, Michigan, could offer a solution to that problem at least. Michigan’s state conventions operated under an “equal division” rule, requiring that women make up half the delegates.

Jeffrey and other feminist activists called for the 1976 Democratic convention to adopt this rule as well. They lost. Jimmy Carter, the eventual nominee, didn’t want to be seen supporting quotas.

But they were able to obtain other commitments from Carter, including promises to reconsider equal division of delegates and to increase female representation in the party and in his presidential administration. Carter his promises, appointing Juanita Kreps as secretary of commerce and Patricia Roberts Harris as secretary of housing and urban development ― the first African-American woman to hold a Cabinet post. By the time he left office, Carter had also appointed 40 women as federal judges, far more than his predecessors.

The 1976 convention saw other victories for women, like the keynote address from Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas), the first woman and first African-American to deliver such a speech at the Democrats’ big event. Jordan had come to national attention two years earlier, with her eloquently thunderous denunciations of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate hearings.

“I feel that, notwithstanding the past, that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred,” she told delegates in 1976.

Feminist leaders succeeded in getting an equal division rule adopted at the Democrats’ 1978 midterm gathering. It went into effect at the 1980 convention, again in New York, and remains the rule today.

The rule “really created an avenue for women to figure out how to get more involved in politics,” said Joanne Howes, who worked for Jeffrey at the NWPC back then. “And you know, initially people said, ‘Won’t just Susie Q, the wife of Johnny, get these positions?’ But that isn’t what happened. It was right at the time that women were getting interested in politics. So once there were these opportunities for women, they seized them.”

Equal division had an immediate impact on the nominating process. Howes, who served as Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy’s deputy campaign manager during the 1980 presidential primaries, made a last-minute bid to win over Carter delegates before the convention by talking about issues like reproductive rights, with the understanding that women would make up half the room in New York. Although Carter was leading, they felt that momentum was on their side and they might be able to turn some delegates.

“If we hadn’t had equal division,” Howes said, “nobody would even have thought that this was a possibility ― that we could create this women’s strategy.”

Still, Kennedy lost the nomination, and the convention remained mostly male turf.

“The big thing that went on at these conventions was the fancy parties,” said Pat Schroeder, who went to her first convention in 1980 as a congresswoman from Colorado. “And usually, women weren’t invited to the fancy parties. Women usually had a couple of women’s caucus meetings and things like that. We were going to meetings. The guys were going to parties.”

To win more power, women had to win more elections. But in the early 1980s, the Democratic establishment still doubted that women could do that. Missouri’s 1982 Senate race was a particularly infuriating example. Harriet Woods, a state senator, defeated 10 other candidates in the Democratic primary to take on incumbent Republican Sen. John Danforth. She was the only woman running for the Senate that year as a major-party candidate and had attracted significant support from feminist groups. But the national party didn’t jump in with resources to assist her, and Woods ended up losing by just 27,500 votes out of 1.5 million.

Ellen Malcolm, a former NWPC press secretary, said that many of the existing women’s groups simply didn’t have the resources to make a difference in elections.

“By and large, except for a handful of congresswomen, when it came to big-time politics, women were nothing more than envelope stuffers,” she wrote in her autobiography, When Women Win. “Washington was essentially a men’s club.”

So Malcolm and 20 other women decided to create a donor network of women and men who would contribute money to certain approved female candidates. The plan was to get money to them early in their campaigns ― a way of convincing the old boys’ network that female candidates could be viable and deserving of establishment support. That effort became EMILY’s List, which today has more than 3 million members and is a powerhouse in the Democratic Party. (EMILY originally stood for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.”)

An early press release from EMILY's List to women at the National Women's Political Caucus convention in 1985.
An early press release from EMILY's List to women at the National Women's Political Caucus convention in 1985.
EMILY's List

Getting women to donate wasn’t always easy. Roz Wyman remembers that when she was campaigning for a Los Angeles City Council seat, she’d get frustrated with women who said they had to consult with their husbands before deciding how much to contribute.

“I had one that literally drove me crazy,” said Wyman, who at 22 became the youngest person ever elected to the city council in 1953. “She was a Ph.D. or doctor of psychology and had been practicing 25 years. I’ll never forget her. She shook me the most. You have to ask whether you can give a contribution?”

A Woman At The Oval Office Door

Eleanor Smeal, then president of the National Organization for Women, was one of the first people to notice that women were voting differently from men. She looked at the data from the 1980 presidential election and saw that women’s support for Jimmy Carter exceeded men’s by 8 percentage points, while men leaned more toward Ronald Reagan.

Smeal and her team came up with a name for this pattern: the gender gap. They even used it as a chant to remind politicians about the growing political power of women: “The gender gap will get you if you don’t watch out!”

Against that backdrop, people began to suggest that the Democrats might pick a woman to run for vice president in 1984. Such a move might energize voters to support former Vice President Walter Mondale’s candidacy.

At the time, Howes was working on a nonpartisan project to mobilize female voters. She and some of her female friends, who were also midlevel political operatives, worried that people might view choosing a female vice presidential nominee as nothing more than a symbolic gesture.

“We said if there’s going to be a woman vice president, we really want it to be a woman we think is ready to be president. We don’t want it to just be some kind of token,” Howes said.

They made a list of potential nominees: It was quite short, since there weren’t that many women in higher public office. They settled on Geraldine Ferraro, a former teacher and lawyer representing New York in the House of Representatives. The NWPC’s political director, Joan McLean, asked Ferraro’s chief of staff, Eleanor Lewis, about the prospect of the congresswoman running.

“Joan says to Eleanor, ‘We’re thinking about whether Gerry would be vice president,’” Howes recalled. “Eleanor says, ‘Of what?’ We said, ‘Well, of the United States.’”

They later broached the idea with Ferraro over a dinner of Chinese takeout.

“I was flabbergasted and flattered,” Ferraro remembered, but she was open to it.

So the women went to work behind the scenes to make her nomination a reality. They secured the support of Millie Jeffrey, as well as that of House Speaker Tip O’Neill. They also pushed to name Ferraro the chair of the Democratic convention’s platform committee, making her the first woman to hold that prestigious position. The spot gave her national exposure, as committee members traveled the country holding hearings.

“One of the things I love the best about it is nobody knew we were doing this until it happened,” Howes said. In her 1985 autobiography, Ferraro called the women who worked to get her on the ticket “brilliant tacticians” who were “plugged into the feminist network far more than I was and were well-connected to numerous political organizations around the country.”

Ferraro’s nomination remains a defining moment for many Democratic women.

“That was one of the most exciting nights of my political career ... the women just standing on the chairs ... tears coming down their eyes that we had nominated the first woman at a convention. It was a remarkable moment. Just remarkable,” said Wyman, who chaired that convention.

“It was a woman, and it was this charismatic, smart, feisty, tough, incredible lady who stepped forward, and it just opened up all the possibilities for so many women who for so long thought that they would never, ever in their entire history see something like this happen,” said Germond. “So that was incredibly exciting.”

But many politicians and journalists still weren’t sure what to do with such a high-profile female candidate. A Mississippi official asked Ferraro whether she could bake a blueberry muffin, and people were constantly wondering if she would cry at some point. They also asked whether she was tough enough to “push the nuclear button” if she had to do so.

In the end, Mondale and Ferraro lost by a landslide, and Americans would have to wait a long time to see another woman on a major-party ticket.

‘I Guess Togas Don’t Come In A Size 14 Petite’

The Democrats’ electoral defeat certainly didn’t silence those skeptical of women candidates. In 1986, Ann Lewis was working for Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was running for the U.S. Senate. Much of Lewis’ job entailed acting as an “ambassador to the insiders” ― going around Washington boosting Mikulski. She recalled a Washington cocktail party where she was discussing her candidate with a columnist and friend.

“He felt sorry for me. He thought he should let me down easy. And he said, ‘You’ve got face it, Ann. Barbara Mikulski doesn’t look like a senator,’” said Lewis. “And I said, ‘You’re right. Jesse Helms looks like a senator. I want to change what senators look like.’”

Mikulski has always been upfront about fighting “the stereotypes of a woman candidate, particularly someone who is short, chunky, and mouthy” ― as she’s quoted in When Women Win.

“I’m not particularly glamorous-looking, and it was the idea that I just didn’t look the part,” said Mikulski, who won her 1986 election to become the first Democratic woman elected to a Senate seat not previously held by her husband. “I guess togas don’t come in a size 14 petite.”

In 1978, Rep. Barbara Mikulski explained her legislation to help battered women while standing on a table. She would go on to win election to the Senate in 1986.
In 1978, Rep. Barbara Mikulski explained her legislation to help battered women while standing on a table. She would go on to win election to the Senate in 1986.
Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Other female politicians were also criticized, sometimes harshly, for not fitting a male mold.

Then-Rep. Pat Schroeder chaired the presidential campaign of fellow Coloradan Gary Hart. The former senator was a strong candidate for the 1988 Democratic nomination until his scandal-tinged withdrawal in early 1987. Schroeder explored running in his place but eventually announced she wouldn’t do so in an emotional press conference ― at which she cried some.

The backlash was intense. “Women across the country reacted with embarrassment, sympathy and disgust” to her tears, the Chicago Tribune wrote. In 2007, Schroeder told USA Today that she was still receiving hate mail for that episode. She created a “crying file” chronicling all the times that male politicians and celebrities shed tears in public and were celebrated for showing emotion, while women continued to be portrayed as weak and unfit for office.

But the 1988 Democratic convention did offer a memorable high point for women, when Ann Richards, then the Texas state treasurer, became just the second woman in 160 years to give the convention’s keynote address. She delivered these unforgettable lines about the power of women: “But if you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Lewis, for one, isn’t surprised that Richards’ remarks still resonate today.

“It strikes me that the moments I remember most ― and I suspect the moments most people remember ― have to do with women at the convention. Mostly. Majority, not all,” Lewis said.

“I think that’s partly because conventions, by their nature, are moments when the political establishment takes stock of itself, if you will, and decides how it’s going to continue,” she added. “And so it is the voices of the outsiders, those people who come forward who, by their very life experience and the fact that they get there, speak for everybody outside the hall. Those are the speeches, those are the talks, that you remember most.”

The Anita Hill Wake-Up Call

Mikulski was still one of just a handful of female senators in October 1991 when law professor Anita Hill testified before the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee about sexual harassment she’d faced from Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Her testimony gave voice to experiences that so many women knew so well, though they never discussed them.

But it was a topic that the men on the committee just weren’t ready to deal with: Hill was met with hostility from Thomas’ Republican defenders and disregard from the Democrats. Liberal lion Ted Kennedy, who was dealing with his own issues regarding his behavior toward women, stayed mostly silent, and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the committee chair, didn’t allow witnesses who could corroborate Hill’s account to testify.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) may have summed up the reaction on the Hill best when he reportedly declared, “If that’s sexual harassment, half the senators on Capitol Hill could be accused.”

The fact that there were no women on the Senate committee hearing Hill’s complaint stirred up greater interest in electing women, said Malcolm, the EMILY’s List founder. Congresswomen in the House were infuriated with what was happening in the upper chamber, and a number of them took to the floor on Oct. 9, 1991, to deliver 60-second speeches on the issue. Seven female House members interrupted a Senate Democratic caucus lunch to request a hearing for Hill.

“It electrified the country ― I don’t think there’s any question about it,” said Rep. Slaughter, one of the members who stormed the Senate.

That fury helped drive major gains in the 1992 elections, which swept four more women into the Senate, Democrats all ― Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, and Patty Murray of Washington. Twenty new Democratic women were elected to the House, and EMILY’s List grew from 3,000 to 24,000 members. It was dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”

Women were center stage at the 1992 convention too. Ann Richards chaired the event, and EMILY’s List held a fundraiser that attracted 3,000 people. Malcolm still has a picture on the wall of her office with Richards at the podium, surrounded by women running for office.
Women were center stage at the 1992 convention too. Ann Richards chaired the event, and EMILY’s List held a fundraiser that attracted 3,000 people. Malcolm still has a picture on the wall of her office with Richards at the podium, surrounded by women running for office.
Ellen Malcolm

Moseley Braun and Feinstein were named to the Judiciary Committee, but not without a misstep by Biden, who hand-delivered a dozen red roses to Boxer with the note, “Welcome to the Senate Judiciary Committee.” News reports at the time described the moment in highly gendered language ― that Biden had tried to “woo” Boxer but was “scorned,” that Biden was “going courting” while the new senators were “playing hard to get.”

The 1992 election also made Hillary Clinton a national figure, as her husband won the presidency. She was an unusual first lady, choosing to use both her maiden and married names ― she went by Hillary Rodham Clinton ― and getting involved in administration policy decisions to an unprecedented degree. She was often compared to Lady MacBeth for her outspokenness, her ambition and how she seemed to thumb her nose at the traditional role of a first lady ― and, to some, the traditional role of a wife.

“She was a lawyer, she had a very prominent look about her, and she was just ― I just said to my husband, ‘That is a very, very intelligent woman,’” recalled Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam). Bordallo, whose husband was governor of Guam in the 1970s and 1980s, initially met Clinton when they were both members of the First Ladies Association.

“She wasn’t all in with some of us, with some of our more petty things that we were talking about,” Bordallo said. “More women’s talk, you know ― what kind of cookies are you going to serve at the next tea or whatever, or the routines of how you run the government house as a first lady. Those kind of things, she was a little set aside.”

Clinton ran for New York’s open Senate seat in 2000 ― the last year of her husband’s White House tenure ― and won, becoming the state’s first female senator. She won over skeptical New Yorkers, who were worried she was using them as a steppingstone, by launching a “listening tour” that took her to every single county and focused on personal outreach.

‘You Cannot Want What You Can’t Even Imagine’

Clinton will claim the Democratic nomination 144 years after Victoria Woodhull first launched a presidential bid with the Equal Rights Party, 44 years after Shirley Chisholm became the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination and 32 years after Geraldine Ferraro made her historic vice presidential bid. Many women today never thought they’d see a real chance of electing a female president in their lifetime. Others wonder what the hell took so long.

“I’ve always counted on it, I’ll be honest with you,” Moseley Braun said.

Howes actually expected that a woman would reach the Oval Office before one took the speaker’s gavel in the House.

“In some ways, I always thought it [becoming speaker] was politically a more difficult thing to do because she had to convince the majority of her colleagues, who were male, to support her,” Howes said.

Pelosi, now the House minority leader, said she, too, thought a female president would come first.

“In the Congress, there is a 200-year-plus pecking order of who is going to be next,” she said. “So for me to break into those ranks provoked statements like, ‘Who said she could run?’ ... That just made me more determined to break the marble ceiling.”

Many women who have been in politics for decades note that the media still hold Clinton to standards that male candidates don’t have to meet. It’s something they can relate to and part of the reason why they so fiercely defend her every time someone tells her to smile more or stop shouting.

“Progress is slow,” Howes said. “But I think, you know ― I’m optimistic Hillary will actually get elected president. I think it’s going to be brutal, but I think she’ll make it. But it’s going to be ugly ... which I don’t relish having to live through that. But if that’s what it’s going to take!”

The excitement of women who have fought their whole careers to see one of their own at the top of the Democratic ticket is palpable.

“I can barely think about it without getting crazed,” Malcolm said.

Clinton supporters stress over and over that they don’t back the former secretary of state just because she is a woman. But she is a woman who has managed to get this far in an arena that long shut women out. And they’re excited about what a Clinton win could mean for future generations.

Lewis anticipates that the country will see “the second great wave” of women entering politics if Clinton is victorious in November.

“You cannot want what you can’t even imagine,” she said. “It’s very hard to get up every day and work for something that seems absolutely out-of-sight impossible. A woman in the White House means to everybody, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ Not just, by the way, for women, but anyone who has thought you’re ruled out.”

Indeed, research shows that once a country elects a woman to its highest office, it starts electing more women to the legislature as well.

At a meeting between Clinton and House Democrats in June, Pelosi told a story about three little boys who attended a recent White House reception. One of them pointed to a painting on the wall and asked, “Who is that a painting of?” His friend told him it was Bill Clinton, but he didn’t know who that was.

“That’s Hillary’s husband,” replied the third child.

Twelve-year-old Nancy D’Alesandro and her stuffed donkey could not have known that 64 years later she’d witness the nomination of the first woman for president. But while Democrats are celebrating this milestone in Philadelphia, she said she’ll be watching for what’s next.

“I always say to people, when you go to the convention, it’s really important to see what’s happening right now. But try to figure out who are going to be the stars of the next convention from what you see in the presentation here,” Pelosi said. “And the, shall we say, maturity of how we deal with all of this. What does this mean for the next convention?”

“Because that’s what elections are about. The future.”

Video by Christine Conetta. Graphics by Alissa Scheller.

CORRECTION: EMILY’s List has more than 3 million, not 30 million, members today.

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