IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Gender and the Presidency: A Look Through Polling History

In recent years, Americans have mostly shrugged at the idea of electing a female president. But that's been a result of huge change since the mid-1900s.
Image: voting in Fresno, Calif.
Booths are full as voters turn out to place their votes at Engine House no. 5, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010 in Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Mark Crosse) Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee via AP

Eight years ago this Tuesday, Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, noting in the most explicit terms of her campaign how history might view her first White House run through a prism of gender.

“Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it,” she said, referencing the number of votes she accumulated in the hard-fought 2008 primary. “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

Exactly eight years to the day from that speech, Clinton is all but assured to become the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Time, Clinton’s ubiquitousness in the political consciousness, the historic nature of Barack Obama’s presidency and her own damagingly high negative ratings have all dampened the drama of Clinton’s crowning as the first female nominee of a major party. And of course, other women have preceded her on the national ticket, namely 2008 GOP vice presidential pick Sarah Palin and Mondale running mate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

But it’s worth a look back at the historical record to note how much the national mood about women in politics has evolved in the last seven decades or so.

It’s true that, in recent years, Americans have mostly shrugged at the idea of electing a female president.

In 2015, an NBC/WSJ poll showed that a combined 85 percent said they would be either enthusiastic (30 percent) or comfortable (55 percent) with a woman in the White House. Both men and women reported equal overall positive impressions of a woman as commander-in-chief, and more than three-quarters of seniors and socially conservative voters signed off on the idea.

As long ago as fifteen years prior, an overwhelming 87 percent of voters said they would have no qualms voting for a qualified female nominee of their own party, according to a June 2000 NBC/WSJ poll. A combined 13 percent said they either wouldn’t vote for her (seven percent) or weren’t sure or said it would depend on other factors (six percent).

But a few decades earlier, the acceptability of a female candidate was more controversial.

According to Gallup’s polling of the issue, in 1975, 73 percent of voters said they would support a female nominee of their own party, compared to almost a quarter – 23 percent – who said they would not.

In 1969, it was 53 percent to 40 percent.

And in 1945, those who said they would NOT vote for a female candidate outnumbered those who said they would, 55 percent to 33 percent.

Here’s how the breakdown evolved from 1945 to 2000, per Gallup.

Despite the increasing acceptability of a female president, at least according to polls, activists on both sides of the aisle note that women still make up less than a quarter of elected officials at nearly all levels of government.

The dearth of female representation in elected office has been well documented by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

According to the Center’s data, women make up just 19.3 percent of members of the U.S. House, 20 percent of the Senate, 24.4 percent of statewide elected officials and 24.6 percent of state legislative seats.