Unbought, Unbossed, and Unelected
The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency
By Ellen Fitzpatrick
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016, 318 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz
Context can be everything. Had Hillary Clinton beaten Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, The Highest Glass Ceiling would read as a delightful primer on the long road to electing a woman president. But that didn’t happen. If “In 2008, Hillary Clinton mounted the most successful campaign of any woman presidential candidate in American history,” yet “still lost a very close race for the Democratic nomination,” in 2016, she mounted an even more successful campaign, won the nomination, won the popular vote—and still lost the election. As I write these words, just over a month later, pundits and politicians are still arguing about why, as they likely will for years, if not decades, to come. Alas, in this context, The Highest Glass Ceiling, while still delightful in many ways, is not the book we want. Though it offers a good story well told, its hopeful narrative of incremental progress now seems inadequate to our circumstances.
The Highest Glass Ceiling is an old-fashioned kind of book, a collection of mini-biographies like the anthologies of great Jewish women and famous explorers I used to read as a child. Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick tracks the progress of women toward the presidency through three main figures: the nineteenth-century spiritualist, stockbroker, and free love advocate Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president; Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to be nominated at a major party’s convention; Democratic Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be so nominated—and, in a briefer Epilogue, Clinton. Clinton’s story is a by-now-familiar rehash of Wellesley, lawyering in Arkansas, tea and cookies, standing by her man, and diligent accomplishment in the Senate and as secretary of state. But even those readers who have heard of Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm are unlikely to know the details of their careers, which Fitzpatrick synthesizes in engaging, readable accounts.
These biographies are contextualized in a five-page Prologue that begins with Clinton laughing off sexist hecklers in New Hampshire in 2008, and climaxes with an unassailable yet nonetheless anodyne thesis:
As citizens who defied constraints on their political participation, rights, and liberties, [Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm] seized historical moments they believed were rife with possibility. In defeat, each imagined a successor who would eventually reach the presidency. Each was supported and challenged by political forces, historical conditions, particular constituencies, and, of course, character traits that remain visible elements in the landscape of presidential politics today.
The individual biographies play out these statements, albeit with little in the way of analysis. Woodhull announced her candidacy in 1870, midway through the brief progressive interlude of Reconstruction, in the wake of abolitionism, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Smith ran in 1964, four years after the election of the first Catholic president, just as the twentieth-century women’s movement started to emerge. Chisholm’s candidacy took place in 1972, as the civil rights, women’s, welfare rights, and antiwar movements were in full flower. And yet, none of these historical openings were large enough to admit a woman.
In each case, sexism was clearly at issue, but as Fitzpatrick notes, so were the candidates’ individual characters and political circumstances. Woodhull is one of the more flamboyant characters in nineteenth-century US history. The daughter of an abusive grifter and a mentally ill spiritualist, she worked as a seamstress, actress, and medium, eventually making it to New York, where she hooked up with Cornelius Vanderbilt, became the nation’s first female stockbroker, joined the women’s movement, and decided to run for president, though she was not yet 35, the minimum age for the presidency, and women did not yet have the vote.
Woodhull’s “symbolic” candidacy, as Fitzpatrick terms it, never had a chance, yet she approached it at full bore. Indeed, she sometimes resembled no one less than Donald Trump. “Her riches opened the door to even larger ambitions,” and “She made the candidate—in this case herself—the central offering,” writes Fitzpatrick. Woodhull bombastically announced herself as the exemplar of her political vision in the 1870 letter to the New York Herald in which she declared her candidacy: “I happen to be the most prominent representative of the only unrepresented class [women] in the republic, and perhaps the most practical exponent of the principles of equality.” Unlike Trump, however, Woodhull was progressive to the extreme, advocating not just for women’s rights and suffrage, the primary goal of her campaign, but for labor, the poor, prison reform, and free love—the cause that ultimately brought her down.
Woodhull’s rise was as fast as her fall. Operating outside of the political apparatus, she received copious press, much of it positive; lectured to significant crowds; started her own newspaper; and was the first woman to testify before a Congressional committee. But in May 1871, a criminal complaint filed by her mother against Woodhull’s second husband revealed, among other “salacious details,” that Woodhull’s first husband lived with the couple. Scandal ensued, and Woodhull ended up in jail on obscenity charges, rather than in the White House. The double standard for women’s moral conduct was clearly at play, as her feminist contemporaries angrily acknowledged. Yet gender was not her only impediment, for a man of her politics running outside of the party machines would certainly have failed as well. Still, Woodhull kicked open the door for women presidential candidates.
It’s tempting to focus on the similarities between Woodhull and Smith: as well as being women, both sought the support of women, supported labor, garnered significant press coverage, and were the subject of wild rumors: Smith was accused of being a Communist, a French Canadian, and a “woman of loose morals.” But if Woodhull stood for vice, Smith was all virtue. She entered politics by the conventional route for women of her day: running for the House seat of her deceased husband. Active in women’s clubs and the Republican party in her home state of Maine, she ran shoestring, shoe-leather campaigns that accepted no contributions and built on her close relationships with constituents. A moderate Northeastern Republican known for her “independence” and “political…principles,” she was promilitary but progressive on social issues, supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s war bills, and spoke out against McCarthyism.
Sticking to her practices and principles, Smith was the first woman elected on her own to the Senate, the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate, and the longest-serving woman senator of the twentieth century. Still, her goal was not that women—or any voters—should “support some candidates just because they are women,” as she put it in a speech, but “that no one should be barred from public office just because she is a woman.” She claimed that “ability and proved performance, rather than sex, are the best standards for political selection…[and] I like to think that I am a symbol of this.”
Smith’s decision to campaign for president in 1964 would have been the obvious next move if she were a man, and she approached it as if she were a male politician, though the press, albeit largely supportive of her politics, was mainly interested in her appearance, age, and gender. Again, it would be easy to say that she lost because of gender, as “the prospect of a woman president produced a chaotic mix of excitement and bafflement,” writes Fitzpatrick. But, as Fitzpatrick makes clear, Smith also lost because she stuck to her campaign principles. She refused to raise money or miss a vote in the Senate, she had no support from the Republican party, and she campaigned only in New Hampshire and Illinois. One might argue that those principles were rooted in gendered norms, but they were nonetheless untenable in the mid-twentieth-century electoral arena.
Like Smith, Chisholm rose through party ranks (although in her case the ranks were of Brooklyn Democrats); operated on her own principles rather than party pieties (one of her campaign slogans was “Fighting Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed”); and had nowhere near enough money to run a competitive campaign. Like Woodhull, she was a full-on progressive, opposing the Vietnam War and military spending, and cosponsoring House bills for “an expanded jobs program, increased affordable housing, protection for the rights of organized labor, health insurance coverage for household workers, expanded day-care centers, welfare reform, and a rise in the minimum wage” (I’d vote for her!). But as a black woman, the determinedly intersectional Chisholm, who helped found both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus, faced two additional obstacles to her political climb: racism and black men, who worried that she would support women over the black community. They consistently proffered black male candidates in her place.
Chisholm started volunteering for Brooklyn’s 17th Assembly District Democratic Club in the 1940s, when she was an undergraduate and the club was still run by Irish-American men. Frustrated by the secondary role of women in the club and allied with the black men who eventually took it over, she gained increasing prominence in the club and in Brooklyn politics. However, her candidacies were resisted on the grounds of gender in both 1964, when she ran for the New York Assembly, and 1968, when she ran for the House. She nevertheless persisted, winning the votes of the women and Puerto Ricans in her district, and becoming the first black woman in Congress.
In 1972, when Chisholm decided to run for president, she had to deal with those who thought a black man’s candidacy should have precedence over a black woman’s; white woman who professed support for her but chose to endorse George McGovern; and the perpetual lack of funds—not to mention the chaos of her own campaign. But the New York Times directly named the insurmountable “two strikes against her—her sex and her race.” Running a symbolic campaign that she knew she would not win, she nevertheless received more delegates than any woman candidate until Hillary Clinton.
If Woodhull, Smith, and Chisholm were women who couldn’t have won, Clinton appeared, in her second presidential campaign, to have overcome the obstacles they faced. Several consistent themes emerge over the course of the book—though Fitzpatrick offers little analysis of their persistence—including: the novelty of women candidates and politicians; political competition between black men and white women; lack of party support; and, as Elizabeth Dole put it after her brief 2000 presidential run, “the bottom line, money.” But by 2016, women were ensconced throughout the American political system, albeit in numbers still unequal to men’s, and more than 200 had run for president. Meanwhile, Clinton had the full support of the first black president and the Democratic National Committee, not to mention plenty of money. And yet she still lost.
It would be easy to conclude that America will simply never accept a woman president, though that raises the question of why we are so different from Israel, India, the Philippines, England, Germany, South Korea, and other countries that have voted in women leaders. And yet that conclusion leaves out the mayhem that was the 2016 campaign. The Highest Glass Ceiling ends with Clinton’s email server and the Benghazi hearings, foreshadowing some of her campaign’s subsequent difficulties. It appeared in February 2016, which means it was sent to press months earlier, when Trump was little more than a joke (his name does not appear in the book). Gender and sexism were key to Trump’s win, along with FBI and Russian interference; class, racial, and regional antagonisms; and more. Still, Clinton won the popular vote, which suggests that the majority of Americans who vote were ready for a woman president.
I hate to criticize a book for not being a different book, yet Fitzpatrick, an esteemed historian and television commentator, has done herself a disservice by stopping on the cusp of the next stage of her narrative. Had Clinton won, she could have written the definitive account of why. Now that Clinton has lost, one misses her analysis of why, along with her predictions of what will happen next for women presidential candidates. Will gender be the eternal thumb on their scales? Or will gender become just one among many fraught factors, and eventually not the one that matters? Given the presence of so many women politicians in the generation below Clinton, I’m putting my money on Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Nikki Haley, or Susana Martinez to finally blast through that glass ceiling. But I wish I knew what Fitzpatrick thinks now.
Rebecca Steinitz is a literacy consultant, writer, and editor in Boston. She is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary (2011), a relic of her previous life as an English professor.