THE PRESS WASN'T ALONE IN SHUNNING VICTORIA WOODHULL WHEN SHE RAN FOR president in 1872. Even Susan B. Anthony turned off the auditorium lights when Woodhull tried to address the National Woman Suffrage Association. Soon afterward, lacking the support of the suffrage movement, Woodhull's candidacy fell apart. Backed by the Equal Rights Party, a coalition of socialists, feminists, Spiritualists, and communists, Woodhull advocated sexual freedom for women and attacked marriage as an institution that enslaves women. America wasn't ready for her.
Voters wouldn't be any more eager to embrace someone like Woodhull today than they were more than a century ago. The media would probably ignore her as not being a "viable" candidate. That's understandable. But in general the media have been reluctant to treat the idea of a woman president seriously, whether she's a radical extremist or an experienced legislator. Often the media seem slower to change than the people they are said to mirror.
Surveys of the acceptability of women in public office have generally indicated that the lower the office, the more willing people would be to fill it with a woman. But the political climate has been shifting. Among the more dramatic indicators of change are responses to a Gallup question that has been regularly repeated: "If your party nominated a woman for president, would you vote for her if she qualified for the job?" In 1937, 31 percent of a national sample said they would but 65 percent said they would not. By 1952 public sentiment had tilted the other way, with a 52 to 44 percent majority saying they would vote for a woman. That proportion climbed to 66 to 29 percent in 1971 and was up to 78 to 17 percent by 1984. In 1992, a Roper poll asked Americans, "Stop me if I name an office for which you would not vote for a woman." A strong majority accepted the idea of a woman chief executive, but the number who said they would not vote for a woman presidential candidate or were undecided was 32 percent, up substantially from previous polls.
When only women were surveyed in the 1972 Virginia Slims American Women's opinion poll, a majority were ready to accept a woman candidate for