Correction: The original version of this review twice misidentified the last name of the book’s author, Ellen Fitzpatrick, as Fitzgerald. Those misspellings have been corrected.
Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University. She is the author of “. . . and His Lovely Wife.”
This is a tale of soaring female ambition in America, and so it must be as inspiring as it is enraging. For every one brave woman willing to run for president, there are countless men ready to thwart her.
And this is long before America had ever heard of Hillary Clinton.
In “The Highest Glass Ceiling,” historian Ellen Fitzpatrick tells the compelling stories of three women who preceded Clinton’s quest. Feminist Victoria Woodhull, a rich and beautiful self-declared spiritual medium, ran in 1872, nearly 50 years before women could even vote for her. Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith made a name for herself taking on her boorish, witch-hunting colleague, Joseph McCarthy, before running for president in 1964. Democrat Shirley Chisholm was the first female African American member of Congress, and as a presidential candidate she made it to the Democratic Convention in 1972. Her success so enraged Richard Nixon that two high-ranking officials in his administration composed a fake news release on stolen Hubert Humphrey stationery alleging that a “hostile and aggressive” Chisholm, dressed “as a transvestite in men’s clothing,” had spent time in a Virginia mental institution for schizophrenia.
Fitzpatrick is a worthy biographer, offering a rich, amply footnoted story of these quick-witted and resilient women. In a world where women were expected to demur, they lived large — and paid the price. One finishes the book believing that they wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Woodhull, for example, started her own newspaper to counter other publications’ efforts to impugn her character and embroil her in one scandal after another. After one editor sought to “blacken her character” and dethrone Woodhull as “the head of the women’s movement,” her newspaper warned, “The little editor man strikes at high game, but he won’t bring it down.” Eventually, false rumors started by her mother (yes, her mother) about Woodhull’s relationships with her former and current husbands took hold. Woodhull and her supporters had repeatedly prevailed over male efforts to pit women against women, but her troubled mother’s claims carried special currency. In retaliation, Woodhull used her paper to expose one of her chief accusers, prominent minister Henry Ward Beecher, for his life “in concubinage with the wife of another.”
For that, she spent Election Day in prison.
Smith succeeded her deceased husband in the House of Representatives in 1940 in a special election, and instead of serving as a placeholder for the next man to fill the Maine seat, she ran for it herself — and won. The Boston Globe’s headline: “Maine Is Sending a Housekeeper Who ‘Took Care’ of a Thirty Room Home in Skowhegan to Congress.”
She was a congresswoman until 1949, when she became the first woman elected on her own to the Senate. As a freshman, she “had the ill luck” of serving on two committees with McCarthy, who catapulted to fame in 1950 after delivering a speech in Wheeling, W. Va., in which he claimed without ever producing proof that more than 200 people in the State Department were communists. Less than four months after McCarthy made his allegations, Smith made the most heralded speech of her career, “The Declaration of Conscience.” Mindful of her junior status — and of her role as the sole woman in the Senate — Smith at first resisted entreaties from liberal journalists and friends to take on McCarthy. But when no male colleague was willing to speak out, she changed her mind and delivered her speech from the Senate floor. She never mentioned McCarthy, but the target of her ire was clear as she called on America’s leaders to address how fear of communism threatened the nation’s principles.
“The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as ‘Communists’ or ‘Fascists’ by their opponents,” she said. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”
With the 1950 midterm elections just months away, she added: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calamity — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear. . . . Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory.”
Smith’s courage did not go entirely unnoticed. The Washington Post praised her remarks as “words that desperately needed to be said.” Had a man delivered that speech, statesman Bernard Baruch reportedly said, “he would be the next president of the United States.”
Alas, Smith’s presidential run in 1964, at age 66, was brief and threadbare — and virtually void of serious media coverage. She was, however, the first woman to be nominated for president at the national convention of a major political party, and she refused to release her delegates, thus denying Barry Goldwater a unanimous victory.
In 1972, when some of Chisholm’s supporters warned that her White House bid would subject her to “humiliations,” the 47-year-old congresswoman from Brooklyn was quick to respond: “I can handle them. That’s been the story of my life.”
She was “willing to accept the snubs, the snide remarks, the humiliation and abuses” for challenging the “tradition in this country — a country in which only white males can run for the presidency. I am willing, because I understand.”
A scrappy, willful daughter of Caribbean immigrants, she was “profoundly sobered” in early adulthood by the prevalence of bigotry in self-proclaimed progressives. Her experiences at the left-leaning Brooklyn College had “sharpened her awareness of racism in ways that echoed the ‘double consciousness’ — ‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’ — that W.E.B. Du Bois had once described as an inescapable experience” for black Americans. Still, Chisholm said, “of my two ‘handicaps,’ being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black.”
After years of working for other candidates, she was up for the fight. “I had done it all to help other people get elected,” she said in explaining her decision to run for an open New York Assembly seat in 1965. “The other people who got elected were men, of course, because that was the way it was in politics. This has to change someday. . . . I was the best-qualified nominee, and I was not going to be denied because of my sex.”
In 1968, she became the first black woman to be elected to Congress. Her campaign slogan: “Fighting Shirley Chisholm — Unbought and Unbossed.” Almost immediately, she was impatient with the traditional ways of the House, deriding the “senility system” of seniority that, as Smith had experienced, landed her committee assignments meant to trivialize her. For Chisholm, it was the Agriculture Committee. “Apparently, all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there,” she said, referring to a popular 1943 novel by Betty Smith, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
After she made clear her intention to run for president in 1972, some of her black male colleagues not only objected but also tried to recruit a man to run instead. She was not surprised. “Prisoners of their traditional attitudes,” “wounded in their males [sic] egos” and victims of “male vanity at work,” such men “would never endorse me.”
With little fundraising and no paid national staff — and a lack of endorsements from previously enthusiastic feminists once she entered the race — Chisholm knew she could not win, she later said. And Nixon’s ugly attempt to malign her character left her shaken.
Still, her “greatest achievement,” she later said, was that she’d “had the audacity and nerve to make a bid for the presidency of the United States.”
Fitzpatrick’s book ends with a 29-page epilogue about Hillary Clinton’s current campaign. An inevitable choice, perhaps, for an author and publisher hoping to capitalize on this presidential season, but it renders the book immediately out of date. It ends with Clinton’s 11-hour testimony last fall at a congressional hearing about the 2012 terrorist attack against Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Since then, she has found herself in a rigorous primary race with Sen. Bernie Sanders, outcome unknown. This is a minor grievance, as the history contained in the book’s pages reminds us that we women have been down this road — every twist and turn of it — before.
Where we end up this time, however, has yet to be written.
“Would Clinton’s renewed campaign for the presidency result in victory this time?” Fitzpatrick asks. “Only time would tell. But there could be little doubt that no woman in American history had ever come closer. The quest was now a political contest.”
Fitzpatrick stops short of predictions. Never fear. As always, we have plenty of pundits to fill that void.
By Ellen Fitzpatrick
Harvard. 318 pp. $25.95