Stock Montage/Getty Images

Women Have Been Trying To Win The Presidency For 144 Years

Historians tell us why we never had a female comedian, stockbroker, lawyer, senator, or congresswoman in the White House

It’s been 144 years since the first woman ran for president in the U.S. — which, if you’re doing the math in your head right now, was a while before women gained the right to vote in 1920. Since then, many more have run, and every single campaign reached the same fate.

Victoria Woodhull was the first, in 1872. Belva Ann Lockwood became the second person to run, in 1884. Two decades after the 19th Amendment was ratified, America got its first female joke presidential candidate, when Gracie Allen, of the comedy duo Burns and Allen, decided to run. In 1964, Maine senator Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. In 1972, already an election year crammed with historical highlights, Representative Shirley Chisholm became the first woman and African-American to run for the Democratic nomination.

We talked to Amanda Frisken, an associate professor at SUNY Old Westbury and author of Victoria Woodhull's Sexual Revolution; Jill Norgren, author of Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President; broadcast radio historian Elizabeth McLeod; Margaret Chase Smith Library director Dr. David Richards; and Shola Lynch, who made the film Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed, about these campaigns at this moment, when no woman has ever been so close to a presidential nomination. Discussing these races, it’s easy to remember why some moments in history never feel too far away — because, in many cases, we’re still grappling with their echoes.

How do you decide to run for president when no one has done it before?

Amanda Frisken on Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run

Woodhull nominated herself by letter to the New York Herald, with the backing of some friends and people she worked with. She was known at the time as the first woman, with her sister, to open a brokerage firm. She was only 34, and so in fact ineligible to run. It was clear that many people just assumed she was a crackpot. Also, there were plenty of people who thought women working on Wall Street was unsavory. So she already had a very public reputation.

Jill Norgren on Belva Lockwood, the second woman to run

Lockwood was interested in the issue of equal pay for women, because she had been paid, as a very young woman in Upstate New York, half the salary of male teachers. As the women’s rights movement starts to develop in New York, she actually meets and works with Susan B. Anthony on issues like teachers’ pay and curriculum. She is increasingly part of the Equal Rights Movement. She’s widowed, so she’s faced with problems of supporting herself and a 3-year-old at age 23, so it gives her an acute sense of personal issues that relate to policy issues. She goes to a college in midstate New York, where she picks up the idea of law as a career. She moves in her late thirties with her daughter to Washington, D.C., which makes her that much more interested in politics. As all of this activity is going on, in 1872 there is the first women’s bid for the presidency. Lockwood sees that. Around the same time, she is finally admitted to the bar.

Lockwood had a great ego. You have to love her because she’s such an egotist. She kind of takes up the challenge of being a candidate a little bit on a lark. She realizes if women don’t put themselves out there, they’re never going to be taken seriously. Neither she nor Woodhull pop out of nothing.

Elizabeth McLeod on Gracie Allen, radio comedian

It was not the first time that a comedian had run for president; Eddie Cantor had run in 1932. It was strictly a joke campaign, but it became a running gag through the convention. George Burns and Gracie looked at that, and thought, "We can do this too."

The 1940 election was a very fractious one. There was a lot of controversy about President Roosevelt seeking a third term. The Republican race was wide open, with mostly far-right isolationists running. It seemed like a good idea to throw another candidate in the mix.

CBS via Getty Images

David Richards on Margaret Chase Smith, Republican senator from Maine

Originally her intent was to run against John Kennedy. That all changes in November 1963. In her own party, she saw that on the far left, the choice was Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, and on the right was Barry Goldwater of Arizona, so she thought there needed to be more of a moderate voice. Her announcement speech to the National Women’s Press Club, it was very clever. She lists all the reasons people have told her not to run, which essentially centered on the fact that she was a woman and won’t be taken seriously, that she doesn’t have enough support and won’t get enough votes. And then says, "For all these compelling reasons not to run — dramatic pause — I have decided I shall." They were completely surprised, and burst into applause.

Shola Lynch on Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to get elected to Congress

There was no clear frontrunner. Bobby Kennedy had been killed, so there were 12 or 13 candidates all vying for the Democratic nomination. And the top contenders looked like they were going to split up the vote. So she thought, if I run in as many primaries as possible, and get delegates, there is the potential to have real brokerage power at the convention. Unbelievably, she was able to fund her campaign with money raised and her own savings from her job as a schoolteacher and new congresswoman — which we know can’t happen anymore.

How did the media treat them?

Lynch, on Chisholm

The reaction was terrible! It was assumed Chisholm was doing it as a publicity stunt. One of the early clips in my film, it’s of Walter Cronkite, who says — on the evening news — "A hat, well, actually, — hah hah hah — no, a bonnet has been tossed into the presidential race, and that of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm." WHAT?!

There were ugly moments, death threats, and dirty tricks. There were letters circulated, calling her crazy. There were terrible jokes about her looks, and that she was browbeating her husband.

McLeod, on Gracie

The media loved this sort of thing. The actual campaign was grand and serious. A light touch was desperately needed. Gracie made the cover of TIME in the spring of 1940, which was a definite achievement. She was a guest on many other programs. They had her break into other radio programs and talk about how she was running for president. And it would get really humorous when the program she was on was a drama, when she’d burst into a soap opera and talk about how she was running for president. And she would leave just as quickly as she had come, and the show would just continue with its plot.

Frisken, on Woodhull

The most famous cartoon was the one where Woodhull was depicted as Mrs. Satan. If you google it, you see that she had big black wings with spikes on them, and horns on her head. There was a woman behind her, carrying a drunken husband and all their belongings, and she said, "I'd rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps." That’s because Woodhull was an advocate of social freedom, or as it was called by its critics, free love. She criticized marriage, she was as advocate of divorce — in those days, women couldn’t get a divorce in New York unless they had been abandoned.

PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Norgren, on Lockwood

She was frequently shown with another third-party candidate, Ben Butler, a former Civil War general who later ran for office, and a pretty powerful member of Congress. He was also a short, roly-poly guy, so he was easy to caricature. Lockwood wasn’t as easy to caricature. At this point, she’s a 50-odd year old, nice-looking lady with gray hair. And so what they would do, they would put Butler in a clown suit, and put Lockwood in a ballet tutu. To today’s eyes, that seems silly, but in the 1880s, putting a respectable woman in a tutu is a sexual statement, because no respectable woman would be showing her legs.

Richards, on Smith

The media treated her like a woman, which was not pleasant in 1964. One of my favorite political cartoons from that election was from the Illinois primary, one of the ones that she did best in. It’s of her and Barry Goldwater fishing, and the caption down below is, "Margie, why can’t you stay home where you belong?" A lot of the focus was on her appearance and her clothes. In some of the cartoons she was depicted as high heels, or as a woman’s hat.

What were their campaigns like?

Frisken, on Woodhull

She liked to lead by example. I don’t think you can call it a campaign. Running for president was one of the many things she was doing. She was the head of a section of First International, which was a labor movement, she was still running her brokerage firm, and for a time, she had a very successful radical newspaper. She wasn’t doing things that we think of as campaigning. She was more interested in taking a dramatic stand to show what women could do. I don’t think she thought in a million years she could be president.

Richards, on Smith

Margaret Chase Smith stuck to the issues. But I think one of her main reasons for running was to show women it was possible. She had a love/hate relationship with the women’s movement. She was a very early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, but she took that quite literally. She felt that the women’s rights movement had bled into a special rights movement.

FPG/Getty Images

McLeod, on Gracie

Gracie would talk about real issues, but give them a jokey twist. A big issue at that time was neutrality: Whether the U.S. would remain strictly neutral in regards to World War II, or whether we would aid the allies, financially or with material. Gracie’s response managed to avoid the extremes. She said, "Neutrality bill? We owe it, let’s pay it!" She would say, "We have the biggest national debt in the world, let’s be proud of it!" She acknowledged both sides of the controversy, without taking sides, which was important to do. If you’re on national radio every week for a sponsor, the sponsor doesn’t want you to offend anyone. One of the gags I always liked, someone on the program would say to her, "Well, you’d be the first woman president, isn’t that exciting?" And she would respond, "First official president." Which was a line directed at Eleanor Roosevelt, who was seen by many to be the power behind FDR. And Edith Wilson as well. There was definitely a sense that the time for a woman president was coming. Gracie never turned it into a slapstick farce. She didn’t have the demeaning jokes. It was progressive, in a way.

It was necessary to create a fake party for the neutrality of the campaign to be maintained — she couldn’t run as a Democrat or Republican. She was a Democrat, a very active Democrat. But she presented herself as a candidate of the Surprise Party, which had a kangaroo as its logo instead of an elephant or a donkey. In the context of the radio show, they actually presented with a live kangaroo, and it sort of became a character on the show.

CBS via Getty Images

And how did their campaigns end?

Frisken, on Woodhull

This is one of the dramatic things Woodhull did. It’s very complicated. She found out a piece of information about one of the nation’s most famous Protestant ministers. He was the head of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Henry Ward Beecher was a household name. In a lecture before the Spiritualists, she accused him of committing adultery. A couple months later she published that story in print. And that got her in trouble. Not for libel. A man named Anthony Comstock, you may have heard of him as the man who banned any conversation about women’s reproductive systems, anything that described what women’s bodies were like inside, for about 40 years, he had her arrested for obscenity. On Election Day in 1872, she was imprisoned.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McLeod, on Gracie

The Surprise Party convention took place out in Nebraska, and they wanted to tie it in with the old covered wagon image. They had Gracie appear on stage in a hoop skirt and a sun bonnet. They played with the idea that a political convention is really a big carnival by actually having literal sideshows and prizes and games going on. The joke quietly fizzled out in the summer, and they didn’t bring it back for the next season in the fall. Which was probably the best way to go about it because, having 80,000 people show up at your convention, how do you top that? She was not on any official ballot, but she generated votes in various areas of the country. We don’t know how many, because records on write-ins weren’t kept. In one town in Wisconsin, she got 63 votes, which was the majority of the vote in that town.

Richards, on Smith

In the end, on the Republican National Convention ballot, Margaret Chase Smith came in second. She was always letting women know there was still one place left to go. And we will find out in Philadelphia this summer if a woman can get beyond second place on a nomination ballot.

What was the legacy of their campaigns?

Lynch, on Chisholm

What was possible 30 years after the fact was to go back and relive the moment, wow, there was something there, Chisholm was way ahead of her time. The film came out at Sundance in 2004, and we STILL didn’t believe that a black person or a woman could be president! Within that context, she was like science fiction.

Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty Images

Barbara Lee, who has been in Congress for a long time, had never thought about running for any office, and in fact wasn’t even registered to vote. And she was a young mother, who had just gone back to school at Mills College, and heard Shirley Chisholm speak about running for president. She was so amazed, and said, "How can I help, what do I do, who do I contact?" And Ms. Chisholm said, "Wait! You can be our Oakland person." And because of that experience, and getting all the way to the convention and participating in the process, she got into politics. A lot of the people I talked to when I was making the film, they were incredibly affected by the campaign. They didn’t all run for office, but they definitely heard the call to service.

Richards, on Smith

She was very supportive of women. One of the women today who is most appreciative of what Margaret Chase Smith did is Susan Collins. When Senator Collins was a high school student, she was invited down to Washington, D.C. through a national program by Margaret Chase Smith, and she talks to this day about what an influence that was, to meet with Senator Smith.

Frisken, on Woodhull

She did not talk very much about her presidential campaign afterward. She became an icon of free speech. Her lecture tour in the mid-1870s was all about saying there was a conspiracy afoot to keep them from talking about powerful men. She must have talked in 400 little towns over four years about inequality, free love, marriage, and about Beecher, but not about her presidential campaign. She was the first woman who ever appeared before the House Judiciary Committee. In January 1871, she presented a theory of suffrage for women, the "New Departure" theory, which involved the 14th Amendment.

Where can you find the 2016 race in these campaigns?

Richards, on Smith

I have been saying for the past few months that Margaret is having a very good year. She’s getting some attention for her Declaration of Conscience speech, given what’s happening in the Republican Party today. People have been saying that there needs to be someone like Margaret Chase Smith, who calls her party to task.*

McLeod, on Gracie

Trump is a cartoon character, as much as Gracie was. You can certainly argue that he still is. But he’s being taken seriously. Well, we won’t get into that. Let’s just say I would rather have Gracie Allen for president.

Lynch, on Chisholm

I tried to get Hillary Clinton to talk for the film, but was unsuccessful. I think there was trepidation about appearing in a film about a woman candidate who doesn’t succeed to win the nomination. I think it will be easier for younger people, coming up in a context where you’re not worried about that stuff. But, hey, that’s another story.

* In another weird, if inconsequential parallel with this election cycle, Smith sometimes was accused of being Canadian. "In Maine politics," Richards says, "oftentimes the accusation was that she was trying to hide that she was French-Canadian. Her maiden name was Chase, so some people accused her of changing it from Chasse. The story is completely wrong."

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

UPDATE (4/16/16, 12:15 p.m. ET): This post has been edited since publication to clarify the story of Victoria Woodhull.

CORRECTION (4/17/16 9:15 p.m. ET): Victoria Woodhull spoke before the House Judiciary Committee in 1871. An earlier version of this item misstated this date.