When New York Senator Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, a press release from the National Organization for Women’s political action committee noted that she had made history.
“Tonight,” declared NOW President Kim Gandy, “Senator Hillary Clinton defied the media pundit machine and made history as the first woman to win the New Hampshire Democratic primary for U.S. president.”
While true, the claim was so over-qualified that it did not begin to describe the extent to which Clinton made history.
Hillary Clinton was the not merely the first woman to win the New Hampshire Democratic primary for president, she was the woman making a serious bid for the presidency to win a primary in any state to select delegates to a national convention of either party.
A quarter century after the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s breakthrough presidential bid of 1984, when he became the first African-American candidate mounting a serious national campaign to win caucuses and primaries, Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s success in the Iowa Democratic caucus carried forward a barrier-breaking process that Jackson began with the first of his Rainbow Coalition campaigns and continued with a 1988 campaign that saw him win more than a dozen caucuses and primaries.
With her New Hampshire win, however, Clinton accomplished something that had never been done before.
The strongest previous showing by a woman seeking a national party presidential nomination was the second-place finish – with 209,521 votes or 25.3 percent of the total — secured by Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith when she took on Barry Goldwater in a 1964 Illinois Republican primary contest.
Smith’s 1964 campaign made history on many fronts. A veteran of 24 years in the U.S. House and Senate – she was actually the most experienced of the presidential candidates that year– she was the first woman to bid in a serious way for the presidential nomination of one of the two major parties. She got on the New Hampshire ballot and won votes – although they only added up to 2.3 percent of the total. Undaunted, she carried on, eventually winning 27 delegates to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. Her name was placed in nomination – another first for a woman — by Vermont Senator George Aiken.
Through it all, Smith was conscious of the historic nature of her candidacy, saying that “through me for the first time the women of the United States had an opportunity to break the barrier against women being seriously considered for the presidency of the United States — to destroy any political bigotry against women on this score just as the late John F. Kennedy had broken the political barrier on religion and destroyed once and for all such political bigotry.”
Similarly, the first woman to mount a serious bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, understood the historic significance of a candidacy that was not just a first for women but a first for African Americans. Chisholm said she ran in 1972 “to give a voice to the people the major candidates were ignoring.” And this the “unbought and unbossed” did in the course of a remarkable campaign that saw a presidential candidate speaking from experience about issues or race and gender, as Chisholm did when she explained that, on her long political journey, “I had met far more discrimination because I am a woman than because I am black.”
The congresswoman campaigned in almost a dozen states, running slates of delegate candidates that included, among others, New Yorkers Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. In a little-noticed “presidential preference” primary in New Jersey, which the major candidates skipped, Chisholm prevailed over North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford. But that was not a fight for delegates.
In California, where she competed for attention with South Dakota Senator George McGovern and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the congresswoman actually had to sue television networks for equal time. And a judge ruled she was right.
While Chisholm won a bit of media attention in California, and an impressive 157,435 votes for a fourth-place finish in a nine-candidate field, she was denied any delegates because of the state’s winner-take-all primary system.
Ultimately, Chisholm secured just 28 delegates before the Democratic National Convention in Miami. On the convention floor, however, supporters of Humphrey, a pioneering champion of civil rights who had folded his candidacy for the nomination, backed Chisholm to give her 151.95 delegate votes.
That remains the high-water mark for a woman seeking the presidency, although it should be noted that Clinton – with her New Hampshire win, her third-place finish in Iowa and her accumulation of endorsements from officials who will attend the 2008 convention as “super delegates – has already secured 183 likely convention votes. And she has done what no woman mounting a national campaign has ever done before: She has won a seriously contested primary for convention delegates. The fact that it was not just any primary is, of course, important. But the history that has been made goes far beyond New Hampshire.