40 years before Hillary Clinton, a woman with Irish parents sought to break the US presidential mould

Before Hillary Clinton, 34 women have tried to become US president, including a daughter of Irish parents who ran 40 years ago, and a radical feminist in the 1870s, writes Bette Browne          

40 years before Hillary Clinton, a woman with Irish parents sought to break the US presidential mould

The US presidential spotlight may be on Hillary Clinton, but women first ran for the White House more than 140 years ago, and one of them was the daughter of Irish parents.

Forty years ago, Ellen McCormack competed — like Clinton — for the Democratic Party nomination. She was born in New York but her mother was from Leitrim and her father was from Wicklow.

McCormack ran a century after Victoria Woodhull, who was the first woman to set her sights on the White House with an improbable bid in 1872, almost 50 years before American women won the right to vote.

The two women were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Woodhull was a radical feminist, McCormack devoutly Catholic and conservative.

Eleanor Rose Cullen — she preferred to be called Ellen — was born in Manhattan on September 15, 1926. Her mother, who was one of 16 children, emigrated to the US from Leitrim at the age of 16, while her father had emigrated from Wicklow as a child.

When she was in her early 20s, Ellen married Francis McCormack, who became a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department. They lived on Long Island and had four children.

Imbued with a strong Catholic ethos, Ellen McCormack helped found New York State’s Right to Life party, which opposed abortion that had become legal after a Supreme Court ruling in 1973.

Three years after the ruling, McCormack launched her campaign to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the 1976 election. She campaigned mainly on an anti-abortion platform and made it onto the ballot in 18 states.

She raised more than half a million dollars in contributions, thus securing her place in history by becoming the first female presidential candidate to qualify both for federal matching campaign funds and Secret Service protection.

She went on to win 238,000 votes in the 18 Democratic primaries and 22 delegate votes at the Democratic convention. Among the candidates she debated with during her campaign was the man who eventually won the nomination and went on to become president — Jimmy Carter.

She ran again for the presidential nomination in 1980, this time under the banner of the Right to Life party but fared poorly, qualifying for the ballot in just three states and winning about 32,000 votes.

Ellen McCormack died on March 29, 2011, at the age of 84. Her son, John, said of his mother: “She was a tough lady. She was able to juggle things.”

Toughness was a characteristic that applied to many of the 34 women who ran for the presidency. The majority attached themselves to obscure parties with names such as the Surprise Party and the Looking Back Party, but at least a dozen left their mark on history.

Among them was women’s rights activist Victoria Woodhull, who was the first woman to run for the US presidency in 1872 for the Equal Rights Party.

Known for her unconventional lifestyle and radical views, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was perhaps the most colourful of all the female presidential candidates and seems to have delighted in a whiff of eccentricity.

She advocated free love and was also interested in spiritualism and became a medium, attracting the attention of the New York financier Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was said to have used her talents and those of her sister, Tennessee, as mediums to gain financial insights from the spirit world.

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The sisters also seemed to have gained a few useful insights because soon, with Vanderbilt’s advice, they began to make money in the stock market and he backed them in setting up the first female-owned brokerage on Wall Street, Woodhull-Claflin & Company.

On April 2, 1870, two months after opening the brokerage, Victoria Woodhull announced she would run for president. Media savvy and wealthy by then, she also became a publisher. She owned a weekly newspaper in which she promoted her ideas and presidential ambitions and organised an Equal Rights Party, which nominated her at its May 1872 convention.

In politics, as in life, she was a woman well ahead of her time. In some ways, she still is, as her biographer, Mary Gabriel, points out in Notorious Victoria. She campaigned on a radical platform of women’s suffrage; birth control; regulation of monopolies; nationalisation of railroads; an eight-hour workday; direct taxation; abolition of the death penalty; and welfare for the poor.

However, her lifestyle and ideas soon got her into hot water. A row with luminaries in the suffragette movement and a libel scandal that landed her in prison doomed her candidacy.

A few days before the 1872 presidential election returned Ulysses S Grant to office, Woodhull published an article in her newspaper exposing preacher Henry Ward Beecher as an adulterous hypocrite. She also faced libel charges over a second article that accused a Wall Street trader of getting two teenage girls drunk and seducing them.

The backlash was immediate. Beecher’s supporters helped get arrest warrants issued for Victoria and Tennessee on charges of sending obscene material through the mail.

Police took the sisters into custody on November 2 and they remained in jail for about a month. They were eventually found not guilty, but not before being excoriated in the press.

Their harshest critics included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beecher’s sister and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who called Woodhull an “impudent witch”, while the anti-Irish cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted her as “Mrs Satan”.

Woodhull lived out the rest of her days in England, remaining active in the suffragette movement, and died in 1927, aged 89.

Another trailblazer for women, a century after Woodhull, was Shirley Chisholm. She was the first African-American elected to the US Congress in 1968, and in 1972 she made history again by becoming the first African-American woman to seek the presidential nomination for a major party.

She campaigned across the country and was on the ballot in 12 Democratic Party primaries. She received an impressive 151 delegate votes at the 1972 Democratic convention that chose George McGovern to face Republican Richard Nixon.

After serving seven terms in the House of Representatives, Chisholm eventually left Congress in 1983 and returned to teaching. She died in Florida in 2005 — just as Barack Obama was laying the groundwork for a presidential run that, three years later, made him America’s first black president.

While dozens of women became presidential hopefuls, none got as far as having their names placed in nomination by a major party until 1964. That feat was accomplished at the Republican Party convention by Congresswoman Margaret Chase Smith, though she lost the nomination to Barry Goldwater.

One witty and powerful female candidate, whom I covered during the 1988 presidential election, was Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. She was fond of saying she based her campaign on the notion that “America is man enough to back a woman”.

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When asked once why she was running as a woman, she responded: “What choice do I have?” On another occasion, she declared: “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.”

But her motto from the outset was “no dough, no go,” and when she felt she could not raise enough to compete against better-funded men, she ended her campaign ahead of the Democratic convention that chose Michael Dukakis to face off against George W Bush.

Twenty year later, Hillary Clinton became America’s most successful female presidential candidate before withdrawing her nomination bid in favour of Barack Obama. Whether she can now be the woman to go all the way to the White House remains to be seen. But at least we know that “no dough, no go” won’t be an issue.


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