One hundred years after American women won the right to vote—a right mostly limited to white women at first—Kamala Harris has become the first woman (and the first Black and Asian American) elected vice president of the United States.
Harris is hardly the first woman to run for the office, though. Women have been aiming for higher office since long before they could vote. (Find out why, a century after women’s suffrage, the fight for equality isn’t over.)
Suffragist and New York newspaper publisher Victoria Woodhull, who along with her sister was also the first female Wall Street stockbroker, became the first woman to run for president in 1872 when she was nominated by the newly formed Equal Rights Party. It’s not clear she actually campaigned, and at 33 she could not legally have been president. (Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was listed as the vice presidential candidate, but he hadn’t been asked to join the ticket and never acknowledged the campaign.) On election day, Woodhull was in jail on obscenity charges for publishing details about a religious leader’s affair in her newspaper. Despite her notoriety, there’s no record that anyone cast their ballot for her.
While Woodhull didn’t make a concerted effort to get elected, Harris is the most recent of a long line of women who did. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (CAWP), at least 11 other women have previously vied to be vice president, including more than one Black woman and one Asian-American woman. (There may be more: CAWP’s list only includes candidates who were historic firsts, won at least 1 percent of the popular vote, or received 100 votes or more at a major party nominating convention.)
Many of the earlier candidates belonged to third parties. Some ran to highlight issues, some ran to prove a point, and some were recruited to energize a male candidate’s flailing campaign. Few had a real shot at taking office. Meet some of the women who contended for the second highest job in the land despite the odds.
In 1884, Stow, a California newspaper owner, nominated Belva Lockwood, a lawyer, to run for president as the candidate of the hastily created National Equal Rights Party, one of several 19th-century political parties with that name. Lockwood caught Stow’s attention when she pointed out that, while women couldn’t vote, “there is no law against their being voted for.” Stow named herself the vice-presidential candidate, the first woman to run for the office in the United States. The two women campaigned seriously and, out of some 10 million votes, won almost 5,000—cast by men.
Springs, a suffrage leader in South Carolina, became active in Democratic Party politics after the 19th amendment passed in 1920. She chaired the credentials committee at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, where she was taken utterly by surprise when she became the first woman nominated by delegates of a major party to stand as vice president. “It simply cannot be true,” she said, “but it certainly is nice for all the good friends of mine to consider me worthy of such a compliment.” Springs received several votes but the slot on the ticket went to Charles Bryan, the governor of Nebraska.
In 1952, Bass became the first Black woman candidate for the vice president on the progressive party ticket. She’d already established herself as a crusading newspaper publisher with her ownership of the California Eagle, the largest African American paper on the West Coast. Disappointed in both major parties for ignoring Black and women’s rights, she’d turned to the Progressive party and joined Vincent Hallinan as his running mate. Bass and Hallinan won 140,000 votes but Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon easily won. (The 19th amendment didn’t end Black women’s fight to vote.)
Frances ‘Sissy’ Farenthold
An experienced politician, Farenthold served four years in the Texas House of Representatives, the only woman to do so during her tenure. In 1972 she ran for governor, losing in a runoff election. At the Democratic National Convention later that year, feminist leader Gloria Steinem nominated Farenthold as a vice presidential candidate. She was a serious contender but lost the nomination to Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton.
Running on the Libertarian ticket in 1972, Nathan, an Oregon radio and television producer, was the first female vice-presidential candidate to receive an electoral vote when a Republican elector who couldn’t stomach Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s running mate, picked Nathan instead.
Harris, an activist and member of the Comanche nation, became the first Native American woman vice-presidential candidate when she ran in 1980 on the Citizens Party ticket. In the 1970s, she’d been a force for indigenous affairs in Washington as the wife of Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris. She and presidential candidate Barry Commoner ran on an environmental platform and won less than one percent of the popular vote.
Davis, a Black activist and philosophy professor in California who’d been on the FBI’s most wanted list, ran on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984. She and presidential candidate Gus Hall garnered less than one percent of the vote, too low to make CAWP's list of viable female vice presidential candidates.
In 1984, New York Congresswoman Ferraro became the first vice presidential nominee on a major party ticket when Walter Mondale named her as his running mate. The congresswoman from Queens shook up the race, but ultimately Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush beat the Democratic ticket in a landslide, with Ferraro and Mondale winning only Minnesota, his home state, and the District of Columbia.
Emma Wong Mar
In 1984, Mar, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a longtime anti-war and pro-labor activist from California, became the first Asian-American woman to run for vice president when she joined Sonia Johnson on the ticket for the Peace and Freedom Party, a California-based feminist socialist party.
LaDuke, an economist and Native American activist in Minnesota, joined Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000. LaDuke and Nader received 2.7 percent of the popular vote in 2000, or 2.9 million votes—the most garnered by any third-party woman candidate for vice president to date.
When John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, Palin, who was in her first term as Alaska’s governor, became the second female vice presidential candidate for a major party and the first for Republicans. McCain and Palin received nearly 60 million votes, more than any other ticket with a woman as a vice presidential candidate.
While all of these women were motivated by different causes, their actions broke ground for women coming after them. As Harris said in a recent interview, her mother told her, “You may be the first to do many things. Make sure you are not the last.”
This story has been updated to reflect recent news events. The original version was published on August 12, 2020.