We just lived through the first election in which a woman won the nomination of a major political party to be President of the United States and came close to being elected. To many, this was a sign of major progress . In fact, there are more women today in American government than ever before. But despite the fact that women have had the right to vote for almost a century and the fact that they consist of half of the country’s population, no woman has ever served as President of the United States.

But that doesn’t mean that no woman has ever tried. In fact, many actually have. When Hillary Clinton announced her runs for the presidency in 2008 and 2016, many people discussed the topic of a woman president—what it could mean and how it might play out. But I noticed that few, including those who hoped for a woman president, knew much about the history of women running for President or even knew their names. So, I decided to investigate. Since 1872, there are have been several dozen women who have run, almost all of them long shots with little chance of winning; but that doesn’t mean they weren’t important or interesting. And many of them achieved other firsts in American history. If so many people want a woman president, isn’t it worth knowing the story of how we got to where we are today?

This episode is not a comprehensive history of every woman candidate, but it will focus on those who made the biggest strides to put a woman in the White House: Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, and Edith Wilson. They were all strong-willed individuals who faced ridicule and resistance. And most of them, by virtue of their background, were unlikely figures in the annals of American history. Their stories—and their dream to attain the nation’s highest office—are the subjects of this episode of This American President: The Women Who Would be President.

 

The subjects of this episode, from left: Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, and Edith Wilson (with President Wilson).

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In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was a little-known politician running for president. In February of that year, he was in New York City to deliver a speech at the Cooper Union building. Just before his remarks, Lincoln stopped by the office of photographer Matthew Brady. There, Brady took a photo of Lincoln to mark the occasion of his speech. At Cooper Union, Lincoln then delivered a rousing address where he strongly opposed the extension of slavery. Within weeks, the photograph and the speech were printed in magazines and newspapers across the country. Although awkward and gangly in real life, the photo depicted Lincoln in a statesmanlike pose. This was the first time Americans were introduced to the obscure rail-splitter from Illinois. By the end of the year, Lincoln had won the presidency of the United States. Later, Lincoln said, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President.”

Photo by Mathew Brady, the day of Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union speech.

Stories like these demonstrate the power that photographers have over us and over history. Sometimes, all we remember about a historical event or figure is a single image. Think about World War II in the Pacific and you might picture the famous image of soldiers putting up the flag on Iwo Jima.

But what about the person behind the camera? Who are they and what is it like to document history? How do you capture an iconic image? Well, we are pleased to have one such individual as our guest. His name is Bob Knudsen and he has taken thousands of photographs over the years of many prominent people. And his father, Robert Knudsen, was one of the first official White House photographers, serving six presidents and capturing many iconic moments. We will explore his and his father’s stories on this episode of This American President. Continue reading