Ellen Fitzpatrick breaks the second-highest glass ceiling: writing a history of political women that reads like a murder mystery while managing to elevate the office of president despite recent electoral buffoonery. It’s a neat trick that kept me turning pages to find out what happened next. Like the politicos whose audacity, gusto and brainpower she admires, Fitzpatrick is that entertaining.
Four women have made credible runs at the highest US office. Each attempted a feat that contemporaries thought impossible, to which they paid the same heed that Christopher Columbus gave those who insisted the world was flat or China too far.
Victoria Woodhull (who ran in 1872) often goes down in history as a cartoon. Even feminists sometimes roll their eyes at the fine-looking, traffic-stopping, seance-holding “free love” candidate. Fitzpatrick rescues the contingencies that made the savvy businesswoman a real contender in the topsy-turvy aftermath of America’s Civil War. Woodhull gained a following when women could not even vote by arguing that constitutional law gave them the right to do so. Had Woodhull’s family closet not harboured a ghoul amid the skeletons, Fitzpatrick’s snappy book might be more abbreviated.
Margaret Chase Smith (1964) took the route to high office that Alice Roosevelt called using “coffins as springboards”. Smith’s husband, a Republican congressman from Maine, died of advanced syphilis in 1940 in his second term. Smith got her start completing his 1938-40 stint. Her nonconformist, working-class defence of New Deal reforms and prescient campaign for naval preparedness despite Republican isolationism built respect for her independence, and she became the first woman to win a Senate seat in her own right. She went on to win fame as the first legislator courageous enough to condemn McCarthyism. John F. Kennedy was shot before he could face her when she made her presidential bid in 1964, but he called the Republican he admired a “formidable” opponent.
Shirley Chisholm (1972), famously “unbought and unbossed”, was one of the most remarkable, watchable politicians in US history. The brilliant daughter of Barbadian immigrants, the witty, hard-working politician outmanoeuvred both racists and sexists to become the first African American woman elected to Congress. When black men lectured her to stop emasculating them, she told them to grow up. When white feminists said that they would support her or Eugene McCarthy in 1972, she demanded that they make up their minds.
Fitzpatrick concludes with Hillary Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 campaigns. How could she not? This book is of the moment. The author stops short enough to retain her credentials as a historian, while showing that serious, electable, interesting women have sought this seat before and that Clinton continues the tradition. Anyone curious about the former New York State senator should read this book not only to evaluate her but also to appreciate the rich context of her effort to shatter the highest glass ceiling. Fitzpatrick reminds readers of things that they know, and surprises them with what they don’t, including the men behind the women.
Anyone who wonders why the first nation with universal male suffrage became one of the last to grant women the vote, or why parliamentary democracies have a better record of electing women as heads of state, may be disappointed. But those eager to curl up with a good read on a Saturday afternoon will find the hours passing quickly. They might also become eager to cheer for a female president – at last.
Elizabeth Cobbs is Melbern Glasscock professor of American history at Texas A&M University, and author of The Hello Girls: Women’s Suffrage, World War One, and America’s First Female Soldiers (in press).
The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency
By Ellen Fitzpatrick
Harvard University Press, 336pp, £19.95
Published 25 February 2016