We face a dilemma on Presidents’ Day in #MeToo America. In the past 16 months, we’ve witnessed the defeat and public humiliation of the first woman nominated for president by a major party and been confronted with the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment of women in our society — including by former presidents, living and dead.
The current occupant of the Oval Office seems, with each passing week, to come up with a new way to display scorn toward women. This past week alone, President Trump continued to defend staff members and allies against allegations of domestic abuse and sexual assault — even as he has been accused of similar charges — and proposed a budget that would gut programs that support women and women’s health.
How, then, should we mark this Presidents’ Day?
We should celebrate by reclaiming the history of women in presidential politics and by carving out a space for women in our commemorative history — which tilts decidedly toward remembering the achievements of men. Not only have female presidential candidates made vital contributions to our democracy, but there is a link between the historical figures we commemorate and the leaders we elect. Including women in the history of Presidents’ Day would revamp our image of what a president looks like.
But first, what exactly do we commemorate on Presidents’ Day?
Presidents’ Day originated in a celebration of George Washington’s birthday, and the official name of the federal holiday remains “Washington’s Birthday.” As early as 1784, Americans gathered to celebrate Washington’s birth on Feb. 22 and reflect on his legacy. In 1879, Congress added Feb. 22 to the list of four approved bank holiday — New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Over time, having random days off in the middle of the week turned out to be disruptive to both business and government. So in 1968, Congress enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Law. This legislation moved several roving holidays — Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Veterans Day — to a set Monday.
Moving Washington’s Birthday to a date that would never fall on Washington’s actual birthday provoked Rep. Dan Heflin Kuykendall of Tennessee to warn, “If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know or care when George Washington was born.”
But Rep. Robert McClory of Illinois saw a benefit to creating a three-day weekend: providing “more opportunities for family togetherness and more opportunities for people to visit the great historic sites of our Nation.”
And so, given that Presidents’ Day was created to celebrate the history of the presidency and visit historical sites, today we should broaden our understanding of the presidency and commemorate the many women who have run for president — 14 or more, depending on how one defines “run.”
We can begin with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to do so. Having made a fortune as the nation’s first female stockbroker, Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, bankrolled a reform newspaper called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. In 1870, Woodhull began using the paper to promote her candidacy for president in 1872 (even though, at 33, she was too young to be elected). She had recently become the first woman to testify before a congressional committee, and she hoped her campaign would bring attention to her arguments for women’s political equality.
In 1872, she accepted the nomination of the Equal Rights Party and named the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass as her running mate. (He never responded to her invitation.)
But Woodhull’s reputation was undone by her bold critiques of sexual double standards. When she was 15, her parents married her to an alcoholic con man nearly twice her age. She divorced him in 1864, and this experience gave her an unorthodox perspective on marriage. When newspapers attacked Woodhull for supporting “free love,” she used her own paper to expose the affair that the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the “most famous man in America,” had been having with one of his parishioners. Simply writing about the affair, however, violated the Comstock laws, which prohibited the printing or mailing of anything “obscene.” Woodhull was arrested, and she spent election night in the Ludlow Street Jail in New York.
Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first woman elected to both the House and the Senate, picked up Woodhull’s torch in 1964 when she became the first woman to enter a major party’s presidential primary. Smith campaigned in New Hampshire and in Illinois, where she won nearly 30 percent of the Republican primary votes and came in second to Barry Goldwater, the eventual nominee.
Beyond her presidential campaign (for which she took no contributions and missed no Senate votes), Smith is best remembered for a 1950 floor speech condemning the rabid anticommunism of the McCarthy era. In her “Declaration of Conscience,” she implored her colleagues on both sides of the aisle to stop thinking in terms of partisan victories and instead focus on the good of the nation.
Less than a decade later, in 1972, New Yorker Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, became the first African American — male or female — to seek a major party nomination for president. “Unbought and unbossed,” Chisholm entered the Democratic primaries as the candidate of outsiders, women, African Americans and young people recently enfranchised by the 26th Amendment. As she explained in her 1972 announcement speech, “I am the candidate of the people of America. And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history. … We are all God’s children and a bit of each of us is as precious as the will of the most powerful general or corporate millionaire.”
Chisholm also challenged the policy allowing only front-runners to participate in televised debates and won the right to appear on TV — a rule change that has benefited many outsider candidates.
Presidents’ Day is inherently political, and what it commemorates has changed over time. In generations past, Americans gathered to recite speeches about George Washington, his bravery in battle and his contributions to democracy. These celebrations were not really about Washington, however. What they did was provide an occasion for citizens to imagine the sort of nation in which they wanted to live.
And so, today we should remember the legacies of women in presidential history: Woodhull standing up to sexual double standards; Smith refusing campaign contributions and promoting bipartisanship; Chisholm campaigning on behalf of citizens, not those represented by lobbyists.
We also need to honor these female path-breakers in our commemorative landscape.
Those in Ohio can pay homage to Woodhull by visiting a plaque outside the public library in her birthplace of Homer, or witness a handmade wooden statue of Woodhull mark the passage of each hour in a clock at the Robbins-Hunter Museum in Granville. New Yorkers have the opportunity to honor Chisholm by visiting Chisholm Circle at Brower Park, and Floridians can see a historic marker to Chisholm at the Jackie Robinson Ballpark and Museum in Daytona Beach. New Englanders can travel to Skowhegan, Maine, to visit the Margaret Chase Smith Library and Museum.
By celebrating the contributions of women such as Woodhull, Chisholm and Smith and working to honor them in our national memorial landscape, we infuse Presidents’ Day with a new approach to commemorative history, one that includes the experiences and voices of women and one that just might lead to a new chapter in the presidency itself.