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The 'First Woman,' Once Again

Erika Falk

I was surprised to read in The New York Times that Sen. Hillary Clinton was the "first woman with a real shot at the presidency." I thought that honor had gone to Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2000.

In that year, the Times described Mrs. Dole as "the first woman to become a really serious candidate for president of the United States." Of course, back in 1972, the Seattle Times penned, "Representative Shirley Chisholm today became the first black woman to begin a serious bid for the presidency of the United States."

Then again, a commentator in 1964 said of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith's presidential campaign that "she had the distinction of having been the first woman in the country to bid for that office."

Each woman who has run for the presidency has been framed as though her campaign was a first.

I am worried that persistently framing women as "firsts" and novelties may abet our collective amnesia about the long and deep history of women's political involvement throughout U.S. and world history. Women have led nations such as Canada, France and the United Kingdom, not to mention Turkey, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and many others.

Since 1872, at least eight American women who have run for president have done well enough to get substantial press coverage. Several have also had enough money to qualify for federal primary matching funds. Most of the female candidates for president have been serious women who have run serious campaigns.


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Another problem with framing all women who run as "firsts" is that it suggests that women are perpetual anomalies in the political sphere. This makes women appear more risky as candidates, less likely to win and less natural in the world of politics. It feeds the stereotype that somehow female candidates are operating outside their normal place.

The press may make political women appear less common than they are in other ways as well. Studies that I and others have conducted on female candidates for the Senate and the presidency consistently show that men get more coverage than women, even when comparing candidates that garner the same number of votes. For the presidency, men average twice as much coverage as women.

It is noteworthy that in January 2007, when Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama declared their intention to seek the Oval Office, the top six circulating newspapers in the U.S. ran 59 articles with Mr. Obama in the headline and just 36 with Mrs. Clinton.

Now that we have had a female presidential candidate who entered the race as a front-runner, I have to wonder if the next one will also be regarded as a "first." Even if, after 130 years of women running for president, we are finally ready to shed this label, my guess is that the novelty frame will persist.

If one of the next presidential candidates should happen to be a woman and she is not framed as "the first" woman to run, she will surely be touted as the "only" woman in the race. However, either would be a shame, because women in politics should by now be regarded as normal, not strange.

Erika Falk is the associate program chairwoman for the master's degree in communication at the Johns Hopkins University and author of "Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns." Her e-mail is

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

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