She Got Next : Throughline There are more female candidates in this presidential campaign cycle than at any other time in American history. But women were running for the highest office before they could even vote. How three women ran and challenged the notion of who could and should be president of the United States.
NPR logo

She Got Next

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
She Got Next

She Got Next

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript



More women ran for president in 2020 than in any other time in history.


But the truth is women have been running for president even before they could vote for president.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode, we're going to look at three women candidates who've attempted to reach that highest office.

ABDELFATAH: Margaret Chase Smith...

ARABLOUEI: Shirley Chisholm.

ABDELFATAH: ...And Pat Schroeder.

ARABLOUEI: Our first story comes from THROUGHLINE producer Jamie York.

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: At sea level, when the temperature is 71 degrees, sound moves at 770 miles per hour. At 35,000 feet, where the air is 65 degrees below zero, sound moves more slowly at around 660 miles per hour. So if something, like a plane, that creates sound moves closer and closer to 660 miles per hour, it catches up to the sound it has made.


YORK: The sound piles up in front of the plane like snow on the edge of a plow. The change of pressure as the plane overtakes and bursts through the sound that is made...


YORK: ...Is silent in the plane. But on the ground...


YORK: A loud crack - it's heard as a sonic boom, as if something huge has been broken.


JANANN SHERMAN: She was very, very proud of that - to break the sound barrier.

YORK: Chuck Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier in 1947, and Jacqueline Cochran was the first woman in 1953. But in 1957, after a day of training, Margaret Chase Smith went Mach 1 - supersonic. She was 59. She flew at nearly a thousand miles per hour, and she loved it; or as she put it, it was wonderful, even the barrel rolls.

SHERMAN: Well, she was on the air and space committee, so somebody asked her if she wanted to go for a ride, so she said, sure (laughter). Made sure there were lots of pictures - woman in a man's world.

YORK: It earned her the title of first woman in Congress to break the sound barrier. When I was growing up in Maine, which she represented - first in the U.S. House of Representatives and then in the Senate - I knew this picture of her in a flight suit, climbing into the cockpit with a big smile on her face. Looking at that photo now, though, I notice...

SHERMAN: High heels, absolutely - they weren't what we call stilettos. They were about a 2 1/2-inch heel. But she wore those until the day she died. I mean, that was just who she was.


SHERMAN: I'm Janann Sherman, the biographer of Margaret Chase Smith.

YORK: Margaret Chase Smith was from Skowhegan, Maine, a small mill town. She grew up poor and managed to graduate high school in 1916. She found work in offices, mostly as a secretary, but she had ambitions to do more. She founded a local professional women's club and she was a committeewoman for the Republican Party. But it wasn't really until she took a job with one of the wealthiest, most connected men in town that her life began to turn towards politics.

SHERMAN: Clyde Smith worked his way through all of the local and state offices, and he decides he wants to be governor.

YORK: When the state powerbrokers decided that governor wasn't in the cards, Clyde Smith married Margaret Chase, who was 20 years younger, and ran for U.S. Congress.

SHERMAN: She runs the whole campaign. She's writing all the letters. She's doing all the publicity and so forth, and he wins. She goes to Washington, insists on being his paid secretary. He had a male secretary he was going to take with him, and she said, oh, no. No, and I want to be on the payroll, too. His health is not good, so he seldom left Washington. So in order to keep in touch with his constituents at home, Margaret is the one who comes back. She makes the speeches. She talks to constituents. I mean, it was very retail politics in those days, very face-to-face. And she becomes the face of Clyde Smith with the people at home.


SHERMAN: There are films in her library of receiving lines, just raw film, and she knows whose son is in the Navy and whose father's not well and remembers people's names. I mean, she just made herself indispensable, basically.

YORK: Clyde Smith died in his second term. In many states, it was common practice to let widows serve out the remainder of their husband's time in office.

SHERMAN: And a lot of times, the home party would let the women keep the seat warm, as it were, until they had a real candidate. It's just that she didn't stop (laughter).


YORK: There were just a few months left in her husband's term, and Margaret Chase Smith made it clear that she would be the Republican candidate to take that seat.

SHERMAN: Well, she's already there. I mean, she knows everybody. She's been doing all the travels around the state, covering every post office and Grange Hall the whole time Clyde has been in office. And so it's very easy for her to just simply remind them that she will carry on the work of her husband.

YORK: And so in 1940, months after her husband's death, she ran for office with a simple message.

SHERMAN: Even in her early campaign materials when she was running for the House, the very first one when she filled Clyde's seat read, a woman of courage - blah, blah, blah. But the next iteration that came out just a few weeks later when she ran for the full seat took out the word, a woman. Now, whether she just thought that was self-evident or she just didn't want that - but she really avoided that whole thing. And I'm not a feminist, either, she would say.

YORK: She won her husband's open seat for herself, by herself. She would win her next three elections with never less than 60% of the vote.


YORK: Being a woman didn't seem to faze Maine voters, but her new colleagues in the House...

SHERMAN: What they do is try to, you know, shunt the women off on minor committees where they can't do much harm. But Margaret was having none of that.

YORK: And it started a pattern. In the face of being underestimated or misestimated as a woman, she got down to work and found issues to make her own, like the military.

SHERMAN: She decided early on she wanted to be on the Naval Affairs Committee because of the shipbuilding in Maine and because a war is coming on. And it becomes a real effort on her part to make sure that she has something serious to do. And it really gives her a chance to build a public persona and one where they can't dismiss her as that slim, attractive, little widow in Congress.


YORK: Where she couldn't control her image was in the press, where her seriousness was often read as...

SHERMAN: Schoolmarmish (ph). They liked to show her as a schoolmarm in political cartoons because she was always, you know, scolding her colleagues for transgressions and so forth.

YORK: In 1948, a Senate seat opened in Maine.

SHERMAN: She stood for a lot of things that really matter in Maine, like independence and conscience and integrity and speaking truth. And I think that really resonated with everybody in this state.

YORK: She ran.

SHERMAN: And it kept her getting reelected over and over again.

YORK: She was the only woman in the U.S. Senate.

SHERMAN: I can remember when she was elected to the Senate, whole train-loads of women came from across the country to be there. And she did make a speech and said that she would be a champion for women in the Senate. But then she was the only woman there. I just can't imagine what that must have been like. I tried to imagine for the book, but oh, lordy (ph) (laughter). She was a tough cookie, and she had to be.

YORK: Which made what she did just a year and a half later a surprise to even those who knew her best.


JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Ladies and gentlemen, they shouldn't be called that administration Democrat Party. They shouldn't be called Democrats. They should be referred to properly as the commie-crat party.


SHERMAN: Well, McCarthy - Joseph McCarthy is allegedly finding communists throughout the entire Democratic administration of Harry Truman. And he is throwing around wild accusations, getting a lot of publicity. She watches him go after a woman judge that she knew personally and destroyed her in the press. So long before any of his colleagues would take him on, she decided she has to say something.


MARGARET CHASE SMITH: As a United States senator, I'm not proud of the way in which the Senate has been made a publicity platform for irresponsible sensationalism.

SHERMAN: And she goes home on Memorial Day weekend, sits down with her assistant, Bill Lewis, and writes the speech.


SMITH: I'm not proud of the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle. As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.

SHERMAN: Twenty minutes of just laying into, violating the constitution and baseless accusations. And then she goes to sit down. McCarthy's right behind her. He doesn't say anything. He just gets up and walks out. McCarthy gets her thrown off of a couple of major committees, and then he comes up with his own hand-picked candidate to run against her in the next election in Maine. And it takes another four years before the rest of the Senate censures McCarthy, and he does a lot more damage in the meantime. It is something she never regretted. She was always most proud of having spoken truth to power.


YORK: Mainers reacted just as she thought they would. They respected her moxie.

SHERMAN: And when they came around to that next election in 1954, she was resoundingly reelected.


YORK: In the media, it was more complicated.

SHERMAN: Well, it's always been an assumption, of course, that women are more moral, and women are going to take the high road, etc., etc. So whether or not it's true, it's very effective when it comes to women who want to hold office - is that assumption that they are more moralistic, that their conscience matters and so forth. She takes that lane for herself.

YORK: She was more than happy to be thought of as moralistic and high-minded. What she worried about was being seen as ambitious.

SHERMAN: Women were not ambitious. And if she even looked like being ambitious, that was a real negative, and she was very aware of that.

YORK: But even though her tough stance worked in Maine, there were consequences for her in the Senate.

SHERMAN: And she - eventually, if she wants to make any difference and hold important seats and so forth, she's got to be a little less mouthy, a little less liberal. And so she ends up being much more hawkish, much more conservative. She changes quite drastically, I think.


YORK: When we come back, Margaret Chase Smith sets her sights higher.


IRIS: I'm Iris (ph).

HAZEL KENDALL: And I'm Hazel Kendall (ph).

IRIS: We're calling from Bristol, Maine.

HAZEL: And you're listening to THROUGHLINE.



YORK: Margaret Chase Smith had a successful career in the Senate. She broke the sound barrier in 1957. And 14 years into her Senate career, she started thinking bigger.


JOHN F KENNEDY: If I were a Republican candidate, I would not look forward to campaigning against Margaret Chase Smith. She's a very formidable political figure.


SHERMAN: And, of course, in those days, seniority was everything. And she always got reelected by big numbers. And she said, so they have to listen to you. And so I think that taking on the presidency was not that far-fetched. It's sort of the pinnacle of her career. She's getting to the age at which it's now or never. She thinks she can do a good job. She also is very aware that she could break the barrier for women.


SMITH: Madam Chairman, distinguished guests and friends, in fairness to everyone, I concluded that I should make my decision before the end of January. And I have done so.

SHERMAN: So for all of those reasons, she decides to go for it.


SMITH: It has not been an easy decision. Either yes or no would be difficult.

SHERMAN: But she does it in such a strange way.


SMITH: Let me turn to the reasons advanced as to why I should not run. First, there are those who make the contention that no woman should ever dare to aspire to the White House, that this is a man's world and that it should be kept that way and that a woman on the national ticket of a political party would be more of a handicap than a strength. Second, it is contended that the odds are too heavily against me for even the most remote chance of victory and that I should not run in the face of what most observers see as a certain and crushing defeat.

SHERMAN: She sounds like she is saying, well, I can't do this, and I don't have that. And so I won't run.


SMITH: Fourth, it is contended that I should not run because, obviously, I do not have the financial resources to wage the campaign that others have. Fifth, it is contended that I should not run because I do not have a professional political organization that others have. Sixth, it is contended that I should not run because to do so would result in necessary absence from Washington while the Senate had roll-call votes. And that I would bring to an end...

SHERMAN: And then in her sort of quirky way, she says, but because of all these things against my running, I've decided I will.


SHERMAN: And the place just goes crazy. And so I don't know exactly what the whole point of that speech was, but I think she sort of covered herself up with excuses going in, knowing that she probably doesn't have a bit of a chance.


YORK: The campaign had begun. And the first woman candidate for the presidency of the United States in the modern era was not going to accept donations. She would not form a campaign organization. She would not make campaign promises or really advance a platform. Her name was only on the ballot in a few states. And, unwilling to campaign, she didn't fare well. But that doesn't mean she didn't capture any attention.

SHERMAN: She's kind of an amusing sideshow. And then there's all kinds of really patronizing stuff like, oh, we can't have her in the White House because she will paint it pink, and she'll put ribbons on all the bills and all those gender stereotypes.

But she used them against herself because at every speech - and she was a real hawk at this point. I mean, she's talking about bombing the barbarians, bombing the Russians. But then she hands out recipes for blueberry muffins. It's a tightrope that was impossible. She made a remark to Time magazine that she found vacuuming very relaxing.


HILDEGARD: (Singing) Leave it to the girls, where there's a frill...

YORK: And then there was the song.


HILDEGARD: (Singing) ...And the powder puff, there's greater skill. Leave it to the...

SHERMAN: Hildegard, who was kind of popular in those days, brought her this song and offered it to her as a campaign song. But in our eyes today, it's ghastly to talk about her, you know, making policy in pin curls. And leave it to the girls - I mean, it's just so self-parroting. It's very difficult to write about a period as a historian and not, you know, impose your own ideas. But this was over-the-top.


HILDEGARD: (Singing) It could be that our next president...

SHERMAN: They're heaven sent. It could be that our next president will wear perfume and pearls, be diplomatic in pin curls. For love and glory, leave it to the girls.


HILDEGARD: (Singing) For love and glory, leave it to the girls.

SHERMAN: Yike (ph). How do you make sense of this? Why is she doing this? And she always claimed that her biggest handicaps were the ones she went in with and spotlighted - no money, no organization and everything. But her biggest handicap was her sex. That was the bottom line.


YORK: Margaret Chase Smith went on to serve another decade in the Senate. She was in Congress for 33 years. And she lived to be 97. Janann Sherman moved to Maine to get to know her, to try to understand her.

SHERMAN: You know, I spent six, seven years in conversation with her, hoping that once we got to know each other, I would get some introspection.

YORK: And in the end, there was one important question she could never get Margaret Chase Smith to answer.

SHERMAN: She denied any ambition at all. Until the day she died, she denied ever wanting any of this. This whole ambition thing is a real conundrum, especially for women and especially in that time period. I mean, and not only doesn't she own up to her own ambition. I don't think she could even recognize it herself. She was so bound by those gender conventions that a woman is not ambitious. But she does step up to help when people ask, and that was always the way she described everything, including running for president.


MIRIAM: Salaam alaikum (ph). This is Miriam (ph) from St. Louis, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: You could understand why the establishment would never want to see a person like me in the White House because I tell you, the first thing when we get into that White House, if we have a commitment to the multifacetedness of America, the first thing would be it would no longer be the White House. It would be the Polka-Dot House.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: For the first time, the House will have a black woman member, Shirley Chisholm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Shirley Chisholm...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Shirley Chisholm...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Was a children's educator from Brooklyn.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm doesn't play by the rules.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The courage of Shirley Chisholm...


ZINGA FRASER: She's born in 1924, specifically in Brooklyn. However, her primary years, she grows up in Barbados.


CHISHOLM: I would always have playmates that would be three and four years older than I am, and I would be the leader. My grandmother says that there was leadership in me even at a tender age. And she would say to me, you have a fighting spirit. Don't let anybody turn you around. I am a very strong person, even though physically I appear frail. And I have a great deal of belief and confidence in myself. You must have some belief in yourself, and I do.

NIAMBI CARTER: Everybody who's ever met her said she was the biggest person that you ever did see, even though she was probably the smallest person you ever did see.


CHISHOLM: I realize that this is a rough road. But a catalyst for change has to be able to withstand the insults, the humiliations, the abuses and the slurs.

CARTER: She had no patience for low expectations. And I think she really felt like there was no prejudice, no racism, no sexism like low expectations.

My name is Dr. Niambi Carter. I'm an assistant professor of political science at Howard University.

FRASER: I'm Dr. Zinga A. Fraser. I'm an assistant professor at Brooklyn College in Africana studies and women and gender studies. And I am the director of the Shirley Chisholm Project at Brooklyn College.


CHISHOLM: I was about 38 to 40 when I first started politically. And I remember I used to write speeches for Republicans and Democrats, and they paid me well.


CHISHOLM: One of the things that used to really, really be so revealing to me was really the mediocrity of so many of these persons. But they had the access to the thing which is the milk of American politics, and that's money.


CHISHOLM: OK, what else?


FRASER: There hadn't been an African American woman from Brooklyn that ran for an assembly seat. Bedford-Stuyvesant is one of the most impoverished districts in the nation during that time, but Chisholm decides to run for the state assembly - the issues of education, the issues of inequality in terms of jobs, the issues of housing and police brutality.


CHISHOLM: During my spare time, I organize many groups to appear before budget estimate hearings, city council hearings...

FRASER: She's addressing all of those issues that are poignant for her community at that time.


CHISHOLM: The people felt that perhaps this was the kind of person we really needed to function in the political arena. And pretty soon, it became noticeable that I never relented. Just about four days before the petitions were to be circulated in the community to run me for the New York State Legislature, a group of women came to my home and stayed in my home until 3 a.m. until I gave them the answer that they were seeking.

I tried to impress upon them that it was a very onerous task and responsibility in terms of moving out to go to the New York State Legislature. And the only thing that they kept saying to me was, Shirley, you can do it. We will do the work in the streets. Just say that you will be a candidate.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: In 1964, she was elected to the New York State Assembly. Each time the district was reapportioned, she had to campaign again. She has run three times and won three times.

CARTER: She started to get a reputation for being a hell-raiser.


CHISHOLM: Many of the politicians began to take notice of me in terms of the fact that nobody seemed able to move me once I had taken a position.

CARTER: Right? One of the things that men often say about her is they don't know what she's going to do, and they can't control her.


CHISHOLM: Because I look only to my conscience and to God for approval. I don't look to any man to support me when I get up on the floor to debate or I go out in the streets to fight.

CARTER: She's looking around and really thinking about what it means to be really an insurgent candidate. You go to the state legislature, and you do what you can. And she was pretty effective there. But then you look at the national picture. And I think in Congress is where you actually see the plays be made.


CHISHOLM: The country is ruled by a group of old men that make up the Southern oligarchy. That's why this country is as it is.


CHISHOLM: And so in December of 1967, for the first time in Brooklyn, a seat was going to be created that will give the primarily black and Puerto Rican people of that area the opportunity to have their own voice in Washington, D.C. And again, I had to make a decision because it had been said, Shirley, I don't think you should run for the congressional seat. You can stay in the New York State Assembly as long as you want to.

Why give up the certainty of a legislative seat on the local level to make a bid for a national seat? Then you do not have the backing and the support of the powers that be. Then, in addition to the fact, you are a woman, and in addition to that, you are a black woman. So with all of these things facing me, once again, I had to make a decision.


CHISHOLM: My name is Shirley Chisholm. On the basis of the record that I have established, I hope to go to the United States Congress on November 5.


FRASER: There are all of these people who thought that they should have that seat in the 12th Congressional District. And it was primarily African American, black leadership. And Chisholm, being from that district, decides that she has the right to decide to run for that office.


CHISHOLM: This was truly a people's campaign, running against a very popular, nationally known figure in this country, James Farmer, a great civil rights leader.


FRASER: James Farmer is a national leader during that time. He's known throughout not only New York City but throughout the South and throughout the nation.

CARTER: I mean, he was a man's man in every sense.

FRASER: And he's the one who brought gender into the framing of what made him a better candidate than Shirley Chisholm.

CARTER: He had these sound trucks.


JAMES FARMER: So we can do something for this community. Thank you, madame.

CARTER: And she talks about how he ran these sound trucks and had these big, muscly macho men, as she called them, beating tom-tom drums and saying, you don't need a frail Shirley Chisholm. You know, she's so frail. She's just a little schoolteacher. We need a real man in Washington.


FARMER: Please vote for me, now - November 5, column A or D.

CARTER: And so instead of being upset and trying to sort of call him a anti-woman or a sexist, what she does is go to the board of election.


CHISHOLM: Because, you see, one of the things that I did, I'm very analytical. I'm not impulsive. I analyze, and I study very carefully before I make moves. And one of the things that I recognize - well, if the gentlemen are going to do this to me on the ground, they're letting themselves in for something. And that was, in the district, there were 13,000 more women registered than men.


FRASER: She understood the women in her district actually outvoted the men in her district. And so Farmer, on his own, alienated the most active and the most consistent voting bloc in the district, which were black women.

CARTER: As she beats him 2.5 to 1.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: In the 12th Congressional District of New York last fall, a schoolteacher named Mrs. Shirley Chisholm was elected to Congress.


CHISHOLM: For the first two to three months, I was miserable. The gentlemen did not pay me any mind at all. When I would go to the lunch room to eat, they would not sit at the same table as I did because I'm a black woman. It was horrible.

CARTER: The people that make her life difficult really are the seniority. Power is not what she's seeking. She's actually seeking transformation. And so she becomes a thorn in their side, really. And she's a new representative, and she doesn't quite know what the rules are. But she goes down to the little lunch room that they have in the bottom of the chamber.


CHISHOLM: And I ordered my lunch. I was very hungry that day. And I always took The New York Times and read it while I was eating because nobody would sit by me. So this day, I felt something hovering around me. I looked up, and if looks could kill, I would've been dead.

CARTER: The man from the Georgia delegation comes over to her and tells her she's sitting in the wrong place.


CHISHOLM: You sitting at the wrong table. I said, what did you say? I says, you sitting at the wrong table.

CARTER: You're sitting in the wrong place, I declare. She's, like, well, I don't know what you're talking about. And he's, like, you're sitting at the Georgia delegation table. And she said, well, there's nothing here that says that this is the Georgia delegation table.


CHISHOLM: So I continued to eat. And he continues, I says, you sitting at the Georgia delegation table. But then I began to feel sorry for him because he was hungry. And I decided to use a different psychological approach. I said, you're hungry, aren't you? And it's the first time he gave me a smile because I was nice to him.

I said, you're hungry? He said, sure, I'm hungry. I said, I know what your problem is. Your problem is you cannot sit at this table because a black person is seated at the table. Isn't that right? He says, yeah. I said, I am going to help you. I said, look - you go over, you sit at that table, you order your lunch. And if anybody bothers you, you tell them to see Shirley Chisholm. He went right over to the table, and he sat down.

CARTER: That's the kind of stuff that she was facing as a duly elected member of Congress.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Thousands of demonstrators opposed to the Vietnam War assembled in the nation's capital for a mass protest.

CARTER: So these are the Nixon years - right? - so everybody is feeling the pinch of war, and the nation is unsettled.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Military police contain the crowd, but clashes soon break out.

CARTER: So going into that '72 campaign, everybody is looking at, who's going to be the Democrat that's going to beat this Nixon? And Shirley Chisholm gets angry. And she decides that she's going to run, in part because she said people had to get used to the idea that someone other than a white man could be president.


CHISHOLM: What's wrong with my running for president of this country? After all, for 15 years, I have been the ghostwriter for a lot of them.


FRASER: On January the 25, 1972, at Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn...


CHISHOLM: I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America.


CHISHOLM: I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud.


CHISHOLM: I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I'm equally proud of that.


FRASER: There are all these questions on, why her? Why Shirley Chisholm? Why does she have the audacity to think that she has the right to run for the highest office in the land? And she simply responds, why not?

CHISHOLM: Because a white male has always been the person who has entered into the White House, I don't see why it is that I should step back. We've never had a black person or a woman to seriously run.

CARTER: She is free and clear of big money interests. What she really cares about is advocating for people. That's her deal.


CHISHOLM: I am the only unbought and unbossed politician, and I mean that literally.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Good afternoon from convention hall, where in just about 26 hours, the Democrats will start the process of choosing a man to run this fall against President Nixon. As of this hour, no one knows...

FRASER: Shirley Chisholm makes it to the convention, right? And that is significant.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Miami Beach is full of rumors of pacts, deals, switches, pledges. The hotels are jammed with delegates. And it looks as though this may be one of the most complicated and possibly the most interesting political stories of the century.

CARTER: George McGovern is viewed as the front-runner. He's a senator out of South Dakota. He's wildly decorated for heroics during World War II - you know, good-looking guy, the usual. And Shirley Chisholm is the only woman in the field.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Thirty and one-half votes for Senator Scoop Jackson.

CARTER: She had kind of gotten inklings. She knows that this is not going to go any further. And she concedes in Miami.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: And 119 votes for the next president...


CARTER: (Laughter) McGovern won, like everybody knew he would.


GEORGE MCGOVERN: I accept your nomination with a full and grateful heart.


CARTER: And we saw how that election turned out - not good for the Democrats (laughter).


RICHARD NIXON: I first want to express my deep appreciation to every one of you, the millions of you who gave me your support in the election today.


CARTER: She knew she wasn't going to win, but it was her right to run to show people that, yeah, this diminutive black woman from Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, by way of Barbados could stand here and do this, then I am making this country live up to its promise.

FRASER: Even in 2020, there will be no African American or African American woman who will make it to the convention floor. But Shirley did in 1972.


CHISHOLM: My greatest achievement, believe it or not, is that I had the audacity and the nerve to make a bid for the presidency of the United States of America. I really think that's my greatest achievement. I don't really regret anything that I've done. I really don't. I want history to remember me not that I was the first black woman to be elected to the Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself.


BRITTANY: Hi. This is Brittany (ph) from Indianapolis, Ind. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. And oh, my God, I love you guys. I just wanted to say that (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: Our next story comes from NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: When I started researching Pat Schroeder for this story, I knew only a few things about her - that she was a congresswoman from Colorado, that she was a feminist and that she briefly ran for president in 1987 but quickly dropped out. And when she did, she cried.


PAT SCHROEDER: Good morning, Denver.

Oh, it's going to be the first thing on my obit - the woman who cried.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Pat today at 79 years old, talking to me in December from her home in Florida.

SCHROEDER: You would think Kleenex would give me a co-sponsorship, wouldn't you? I mean, really.

KURTZLEBEN: And the thing is I'm not alone in this. When I Googled her, Pat Schroeder crying was the first phrase that auto-filled.


SCHROEDER: Hey, thank you all for being here. You are so wonderful to join us in Denver, which is home, with my wonderful family. I want to thank...

KURTZLEBEN: Now, I'd never seen the press conference, so I expected to see a woman in heaving sobs on national television.


SCHROEDER: What a great Denver day - couldn't have a nicer one. And I want to thank...

KURTZLEBEN: It's a pretty standard setup. Schroeder is at a lectern. And it's all very 1980s, by the way. She's wearing a blue suit jacket with some aggressive shoulder pads along with those bug-eyed sunglasses beneath those swooping bangs everyone had going on back then.


SCHROEDER: I have loved being with you in your homes, your churches, your synagogues, meeting rooms, schools and the streets of Denver, discussing how we could keep working together to make America better.

Hundreds of people showed up. It was a beautiful, sunny day.

KURTZLEBEN: Schroeder speaks for a few minutes before dropping the news everyone came for.


SCHROEDER: Taking our Denver form of open politics on the road this summer, I learned a lot about America, and I learned a lot about Pat Schroeder.

So I walked out with all my family and said, I've decided this isn't going to work.


SCHROEDER: That's why I will not be a candidate for president.


SCHROEDER: And there was this groan.


SCHROEDER: I could not figure out how to run.

And suddenly, you know, you think, oh, my God. I've let these people down.

KURTZLEBEN: And here she pauses. She looks down, collects herself, looks back up at the crowd. She opens her mouth as if to say something, and nothing comes out. She smiles apologetically. The crowd encourages her.


KURTZLEBEN: You can hear her husband ask if she has a handkerchief. And she draws one from her pocket, and she dabs her eyes while the cheers continue.


SCHROEDER: I could not figure out how to run and not be separated from those I serve. There must be a way, but I haven't figured it out yet.

KURTZLEBEN: This wasn't a breakdown. It wasn't even sobbing. It was a brief show of emotion. And quickly, she's taking questions from reporters. And it's a news conference like any other.


SCHROEDER: And I could not bear to turn every...

KURTZLEBEN: Of course, it wasn't a news conference like any other because that moment became the story. Schroeder's tears make women cry, read the Chicago Tribune's headline.


KURTZLEBEN: Pat Schroeder wasn't the first woman to run for president, and she wouldn't be the last. But something was different about her campaign. As one NPR reporter put it at the time, there was a sense that this is the first woman who might actually be able to win the presidency.

Her campaign was another important step towards that goal, and this is why I wanted to talk with her. Her reflections on all the challenges she faced as a candidate and the challenges facing more recent women presidential candidates can show us so much about how far we've come as a society and how far we have yet to go.


SCHROEDER: My husband, Jim.


JAMES SCHROEDER: Hi. How are you?

KURTZLEBEN: Good. Danielle Kurtzleben. I'm with National Public Radio.

J SCHROEDER: National Public Radio.


SCHROEDER: And guess what? She's from Iowa.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm from Iowa.

J SCHROEDER: Iowa - I've been there.

SCHROEDER: Yeah (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: When I met with Pat Schroeder, the first thing we figured out is we sort of came from the same place.

SCHROEDER: I went to Des Moines Roosevelt, if you can believe that.


SCHROEDER: Yeah, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: I don't think I knew that.

SCHROEDER: Yeah. Yeah - Des Moines Roosevelt. I was a Roughrider.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

She graduated from high school in Des Moines, Iowa. After high school, she went on to college and Harvard Law School. Eventually, she settled in Denver, where she worked as an attorney. And in 1972, she made an audacious run for the U.S. House of Representatives against a Republican incumbent. She won. And at 32, she became the second-youngest woman to win a House seat.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Patricia Schroeder is a Democratic congresswoman from Colorado. Mrs. Schroeder is an attorney who was first elected to Congress in 1972.

KURTZLEBEN: She was a feminist, anti-Vietnam War and generally liberal on most issues, although she'd argue she was fiscally conservative. She was appointed to the Armed Services Committee and by 1980 became outspoken about military issues. Here she is debating some defense experts, all men, on television.


MALCOLM: Let's get some money and a personnel call.

SCHROEDER: Yes. And I guess that's where I agree with you because I'm saying we've had pay caps on since '73. We've done all sorts of artificial things. And we sit around and whine about, why don't we have anybody?

MALCOLM: Let's not talk about the draft and national service. Let's take the problem that we have right now and solve it because it is solvable.

SCHROEDER: Malcolm (ph), I just say I totally agree. I'm delighted to hear you say that. I think that is the real world, and that's what I'm saying. Let's look at the real world. Let's look at the...

KURTZLEBEN: And as the 1980s went on, her star continued to rise in the Democratic Party. By May 1987, Schroeder is 46 years old, and she's been in Congress for 14 years. But she had another job that would set her on the path towards a presidential run.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: And I am proud that the standard bearer for us will be my friend, your friend, a great Coloradan...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: ...The next president of the United States, Gary Hart.


KURTZLEBEN: She was a campaign co-chair for the presidential candidate Colorado Senator Gary Hart.


GARY HART: People want to know, what is the issue in 1988? I will state that issue to you very clearly. The issue in 1988 is who is best qualified to govern this country. The question...

KURTZLEBEN: Gary Hart was a political star. He was a strong competitor for the Democratic nomination in 1984, so in 1987, he was considered an early favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Schroeder was jetting around the country doing events for Hart, trying to do everything to help him get the nomination. And that's when things got messy.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: For the past week, Gary Hart has undergone a withering media barrage. He's being grilled by reporters with intimate questions about his private life.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It all started last week when allegations surfaced that the former senator was having an affair with a former actress and model, Donna Rice.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The National Enquirer has now published pictures of Hart and Rice together that suggest a closer relationship.

SCHROEDER: The photo showed Hart, who was married, on a boat called Monkey Business with Rice sitting on his lap. It was not a good look.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: There's a picture of you with Donna Rice perched on your lap...

HART: Yes.


SCHROEDER: My husband called and said, has anybody gotten ahold of you? And I said, no. He said, turn on the TV and don't answer the phone.


HART: I made a mistake. I made a serious mistake, in fact. I regret those very much, not just for myself but for my own family, first of all, and for my supporters.

SCHROEDER: And I was absolutely sick. I was, like, oh, I can't believe it.


KURTZLEBEN: The allegations tanked Hart's campaign. It was over.


KURTZLEBEN: Schroeder is pretty self-deprecating in describing what happened next. She was angry and upset that the campaign she was co-chairing had just imploded. But when the dust had settled, she realized something.

SCHROEDER: I thought, well, you know, I've been running around doing all this stuff. Why don't I just run? - which was not the most thought-through, thoughtful (laughter) response, but that's what I did.


SCHROEDER: You know, I was still cognizant enough to realize it was very late. There were already seven candidates, for heaven's sakes.

KURTZLEBEN: Schroeder put together an exploratory committee, which is just what it sounds like. She was trying to figure out if she could run and win. And that's key here. She didn't want to be a symbolic candidate. She wanted to get that nomination. And the No. 1 thing she was going to need was what every candidate needs - money.

SCHROEDER: So I said, if by the end of the summer I haven't raised a certain amount of money and I, you know, really see this is crazy, I'm out of here.

KURTZLEBEN: She calculated that she needed $2 million by September to be a viable candidate. And if she didn't, she had a phrase on the campaign trail - no dough, no go. She had some success. In July, at a gathering put on by the National Organization for Women, she pulled in more than $350,000. And the enthusiasm among some women for her crossed party lines. Here is NPR's Alex Chadwick interviewing a woman in 1987.


ALEX CHADWICK: You're a Republican.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: That's correct.

CHADWICK: And you like Ronald Reagan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: I do. I'm also a businesswoman, and I'm ready to see what a woman can do. And I'm also ready to vote for a woman, even if she is a Democrat.

SCHROEDER: I mean, you've got to remember when this is. This was in the '80s, and there were all sorts of polls showing that - I think it was about 20- to 30% of the people said they would never vote for a woman. But then when you changed the question and ask it - do you have friends that would never vote for a woman? - then it went way up.

KURTZLEBEN: Pat had a political message and platform. She wanted to talk about the economy, deficits and defense spending. But she couldn't avoid her gender. And when her gender did threaten to obscure her message, she deflected with wisecracks.


SCHROEDER: As I go around, people want to say it's the woman's candidate. Or I get questions like, why are you running as a woman?


SCHROEDER: I haven't got an answer for that.


SCHROEDER: Other questions like, will my husband have to put his tuxedo in the Smithsonian? - you know, things that we have not pondered.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: She is much more attractive in person than in pictures. But even so, she does not look presidential, especially when she speaks to a crowd. In a speech to 300 college students in Virginia recently at the University of Richmond, Pat Schroeder leaned on the podium, chopped the air awkwardly to make a point. Her mouth yawed over an exaggeration, but she appeared to utterly captivate the audience.

KURTZLEBEN: The coded language and sexism in some media coverage is glaring by today's standards. That was from an NPR report, and this is The Washington Post's David Broder talking about her way of speaking.


DAVID BRODER: I think that her voice is something that probably she needs coaching on. She tends to accent phrases now or words by raising the pitch of her voice. And I've actually tried this experiment myself. If you close your eyes and listen to Pat Schroeder making a speech, she sounds more like a teenager than a woman of her own age.

SCHROEDER: People don't know how women should even dress, you know? I can't tell you how many letters I got about my hair. Some even sent checks saying, dye it, whatever. Men have a basic uniform, but women either look like a Vogue model or they look like an unmade bed. It's getting better. Women can now wear pants, thank goodness. I wanted to have a ceremony where I buried all those damn nylons out somewhere...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

SCHROEDER: ...And danced on the grave.


KURTZLEBEN: Well, so you said that - at the time that you didn't want to be the - like, a symbolic candidate. You didn't want to be the women's candidate and that you just wanted to be a candidate that happened to be a woman. I think I'm getting the wording right there. Was that hard to do? I mean, in the sense of, did the media, did pundits, whoever - like, did people just not let you forget that? Like, was that sort of foisted upon you?

SCHROEDER: It was a real problem because what was happening is I would go places, and I would get letters from people saying, why don't you want men to vote for you? And I'd be like, what? And we would try to put together such a balanced calendar everywhere I went. But the only thing they tended to ever cover were my going to women's events, which were fine. But a lot of people translated that as that's all I was interested in. And that was awfully frustrating.

Shirley Chisholm was a good friend of mine, and she had run. I remember one story she told me, which was so true. She said, I had all these people encouraging me to run. So then I went back to them and said, OK, I'm running now. I would like a donation. And they would say, oh, we didn't really mean that we were going to back you. We just thought it'd be very interesting if you ran. So that was their back-away. It's wonderful and interesting that you're running, but that didn't mean an endorsement (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: As for how voters felt about electing a woman, it didn't look great. When it came to voting for Schroeder herself, it was even more complicated. In a Time magazine article from September 1987, Schroeder came in first among all candidates when voters were asked which one they trusted most, which they'd be proud to have as a president and who would be best on the economy. And then when Time asked those same voters who they wanted as president...

SCHROEDER: Oh, they'd buy a car from me...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

SCHROEDER: ...As I remember.

KURTZLEBEN: And they would trust you.

SCHROEDER: They would - I won all of those, but they couldn't really vote for me.

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, how infuriating was that?

SCHROEDER: You know, you just throw up your hands and say, well, we're not there yet.


KURTZLEBEN: By September, the buzz around Schroeder had grown. People speculated whether Schroeder would officially declare herself a candidate. Well, long story short, Schroeder didn't hit her $2 million goal, and hence that press conference.


SCHROEDER: This has been a very difficult decision because of the incredible encouragement you've all given me.

KURTZLEBEN: Did you enjoy running?

SCHROEDER: I did. I did. But there were things that made me absolutely crazy. And I remember one day I thought, this might really work. I was somewhere - one of the states in the South. And the state chairman introduced me. I like this woman. This is a fine woman. This woman knows more about armed services and foreign stuff than all the rest of those candidates put together. And then he said, I don't have any problem with a woman being president. However, I don't want a man for first lady.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

SCHROEDER: And I thought, OK. Now I've got to go up and give this speech. What do you say? I mean, that - for a few seconds there, I thought, oh, well, maybe you were having a breakthrough. Then - but then I was brought down to earth with a big thud.


SCHROEDER: Like, no, we're not having a breakthrough (laughter). This is not going to work.

KURTZLEBEN: After talking to Schroeder and covering the 2020 campaign thus far, here's what I come away with. We've largely gotten past mainstream journalists talking about whether women candidates are good-looking or have voices that are too high-pitched. But the reality is, in 2020, as in 1987, running as a woman is still different from running as a man. It means expending extra energy, answering questions about being a woman and thinking about how to be as appealing as possible as a woman.

And not only that - it creates additional questions in voters' heads. Not just the usual question of, do I like this candidate? - but would my neighbors pull the lever for her? Would the people in the next state or across the country? And above all, would I?


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: And me and...

YORK: Jamie York.





ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann and Austin Horn (ph).

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: Special thanks to UCLA Communication Studies Archives...

ABDELFATAH: Andy Lanset (ph)...

ARABLOUEI: ...WNYC Archives...

ABDELFATAH: ...The Library of Congress American Folklife Center...

ARABLOUEI: ...Casper Citron Program airing nationally from New York. Also, we'd love to hear from you. You can leave a voicemail saying your name, where you're from and the sentence, you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR by calling 872-588-8805. You might just hear yourself on this show. That number again is 872-588-8805.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.