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Before Hillary Clinton, these women tried breaking the ‘highest glass ceiling’

With Hillary Clinton as front-runner for the Democratic nomination, the possibility of a female president is closer than ever. But Clinton is far from the first woman to shoot for the Oval Office. In her new book, “The Highest Glass Ceiling,” author Ellen Fitzpatrick charts the history of female presidential candidates and the odds they battled. Judy Woodruff talks to Fitzpatrick to learn more.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    President Obama designated a new national monument in Washington today. The Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument honors suffrage fighters Alva Belmont and Alice Paul. Since 1929, the home has been the headquarters of the National Woman's Party.

    Today, it becomes the first national monument to women's history.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    I want young boys and girls to come here 10, 20, 100 years from now to know that women fought for equality. It wasn't just given to them. I want them to come here and be astonished that there was ever a time when women could not vote, that there was ever a time where a woman never sat in the Oval Office.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And speaking of the Oval Office, that brings us to our latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    First, some background.

  • HILLARY CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate:

    Finally, fathers will be able to say to their daughters, you too can grow up to be president.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Making her second run, Hillary Clinton is far from the first woman to set her eyes on the nation's highest office. She follows more than 200 American women in that quest.

    Take the first, Victoria Woodhull. The 32-year-old launched her bid in 1870, almost half-a-century before women were allowed to vote. A spiritual-healer-turned-stock-broker, she was nominated by the Equal Rights Party, a group she organized. Woodhull faced opposition in the press, depicted as a devil for supporting the free love movement, by which she meant the freedom to marry, divorce and bear children.

    Almost 100 years later came Maine's Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to be elected into the Senate in her own right. At President John F. Kennedy's last press conference in 1963, he was asked about a potential Smith run.

  • PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY:

    If I were a Republican candidate, I would not look forward to campaigning against Margaret Chase Smith to New Hampshire. She is a very formidable political figure.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Smith's bid for the 1964 Republican nomination was unsuccessful, but her candidacy turned out to be no laughing matter. She became the first woman to have her named entered into nomination at a major party's convention.

  • MARGARET CHASE SMITH, Former Republican Presidential Candidate:

    Women before me pioneered and smoothed the way for me to be the first women to be elected to both the House and the Senate, and that I should give back in return that which had been given to me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Just four years after Smith gave back came Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968, who moved on to become the first black woman to run as a major-party candidate for president in 1972.

    It was a short-lived, but memorable bid, with the slogan "Unbought and Unbossed." She said her campaign was for the have-nots.

  • SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, Former Democratic Presidential Candidate:

    I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • SHIRLEY CHISHOLM:

    I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • SHIRLEY CHISHOLM:

    I am the candidate of the people of America.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    These women helped set the stage for Hillary Clinton.

    Already, Clinton has made it further than any woman before her. Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick profiles the three who laid the groundwork for Clinton in her new book, "The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency."

    Ellen Fitzpatrick, welcome.

    ELLEN FITZPATRICK, Author, "The Highest Glass Ceiling": Thank you. Nice to be here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, there have been a lot of books written about women in politics, but you specifically wanted to focus on women going after the top job, the presidency. Why?

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Well, there had been very little, I noticed, done on this subject. There had been a lot of books about the idea of a woman president, but no historian had really looked at this question, no academic historian.

    It had sort of fallen between the crevices. On the one hand, there's so much presidential history. On the other hand, there's a lot of wonderful work in women's history. But women presidential candidates had largely been shunted aside.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Hillary Clinton, right now, she is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

    But the three women you focus on were women who, because of the time they went for the presidency, it was a very different environment. Why did you pick these three?

    And start with Victoria Woodhull, 1872.

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Remarkable.

    She emerged during Reconstruction, which was the period after the Civil War when many questions were being raised about what freedom and democracy in America really meant. We had just fought this brutal and bloody Civil War, and in the aftermath of it, there were four million slaves emancipated and new constitutional amendments written to confer new rights on African-Americans.

    In that moment, the suffrage movement began to make its claim that women should be included in these new liberties, that women's voting rights should be established. And Victoria Woodhull emerged in the middle of that debate and said: Why not run for the office itself? I can embody the cause of women's equality.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And then it was almost another 100 years before another woman you look at — that was Margaret Chase Smith — had been the senator from the state of Maine — she was a Republican — went for the presidency. But she was also facing very, very tough odds.

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    What was extraordinary was to find out, in 1964, the kinds of things said about Margaret Chase Smith, who arguably was really the best prepared of any woman who had run, certainly to that point, were actually more sexist than what was being said about Victoria Woodhull in 1870.

    She was depicted as, on the one hand, she had been greatly admired. As soon as she announced her bid for the presidency, she was depicted as menopausal, addled, not really up to the responsibility.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And then, just a few years later, Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in the early 1970s, first African-American woman elected to Congress. So, she jumped that hurdle, but the presidency was something else altogether.

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Right.

    She was on the national stage from the moment of her election, and she was a vociferous critic of the Nixon administration. She got a lot of press. She was well-known. But she too was really ridiculed when she announced her bid for the presidency in 1972, but she stuck with it and went all the way to the convention.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What do you draw from all of this, Ellen Fitzpatrick, in terms of lessons for Hillary Clinton this year or any other woman who wants to be president?

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Well, I think the most striking thing that we're seeing in contemporary politics is that now, in Hillary Clinton, there is a woman candidate who has overcome the biggest obstacles in the way of the women that preceded her, but there is no failure like success in this case, because she has been able to raise a lot of money.

    That sunk every previous candidate. She has strong support from her party. Very few women have been able to get that. A high national profile. And she is widely seen, because of her — secretary of state, as capable in foreign affairs.

    So, she's overcome these prejudices, but she's now seen as establishment.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Some would say, looking at the polls, that the main obstacles she faces don't have to do with gender. They have to do whether it's the controversy over the e-mails or people say they don't trust her.

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How do you read that?

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    The way I read it is that a lot of Americans will say today that they're happy to vote for a woman president, and they're even enthusiastic about that.

    That's a huge reversal from the early 20th century. But they often will say, I just don't like that woman. And I think that the way that I read it is that it's hard to imagine anyone overcoming all these obstacles and also having this likability, universal likability factor that some seem to be looking for.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What about the fact, Ellen Fitzpatrick, that, in the United States, we elected an African-American president before we may elect a woman president?

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Well, that was an important moment in overcoming a long, obviously, and torturous racial history in the United States of tremendous inequality in political life.

    But the changes that occurred in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the 1970s created the opening for women and African-Americans to move up in the party system, and, hence, Barack Obama could emerge and Hillary Clinton as well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, women should take away from this book that a woman will one day be elected president, or not?

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Well, but not easily.

    And I think that it's important to know the history to really appreciate what the stakes are.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Ellen Fitzpatrick, a great book, "The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency."

    Thank you so much.

  • ELLEN FITZPATRICK:

    Thank you, Judy.

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