March 1, 2012
In 1920, Florence Harding became the first woman to vote for her husband for the presidency. (National First Ladies Library)

In 1920, Florence Harding became the first woman to vote for her husband for the presidency. (National First Ladies Library)  

Women and Politics: The Power of Spouses in Presidetial Campaigns

In 1920 — the year women gained the right to vote — Florence Harding became the first woman to vote for her husband in a presidential election. Her action also marked the first attempt by a political campaign to “sell” a candidate’s spouse. The Republican National Committee used Mrs. Harding’s adroit social skills to attract female voters. She cultivated a friendly relationship with the press and was instrumental in creating some of the first staged photo-ops.

“Mrs. Harding is the only candidate’s wife who came more than half way to meet newspaper reporters,” The New York Times reported.

In previous campaigns, candidates’ wives were mostly props, standing beside their husbands, surrounded by children. But Mrs. Harding took a more aggressive stance, helping to create images that humanized the couple and set the standard for future campaigning couples.

Today, the private and public lives of candidates’ spouses — who are just as likely to be men — receive almost as much media scrutiny as the candidates themselves. And their appeal to voters is often just as important.

Eleanor Roosevelt was perhaps the first candidate’s wife who was as politically active as her husband. She joined the League of Women Voters in 1920 and later accompanied Franklin D. Roosevelt on the presidential campaign trail. Her outspokenness and promotion of racial equality garnered enemies, but she remained her husband’s trusted adviser until his death.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was pregnant with her second child during her John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Young, glamorous and a fashion trendsetter, she participated in TV and newspaper interviews and taped radio commercials in foreign languages. Mrs. Kennedy, who worked at a newspaper before marrying, also wrote the nationally syndicated column “Campaign Wife.”

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, his promise that voters would get “two for the price of one” with his Yale-educated wife Hillary Rodham Clinton polarized voters. Some revered Hillary as a role model; others reviled her as an assertive career woman. In 2008, President Bill Clinton’s star power helped presidential candidate Hillary raise millions as she sought the Democratic nomination.

Elizabeth Dole was considered Bob Dole’s secret asset during his 1996 presidential campaign. The former White House official and two-time cabinet member was better liked than both her husband and his running mate. She used her down-home star power to help bridge the gender gap and get women to vote for her husband. As the first spouse to have a full-time campaign travel operation separate from her husband’s, Mrs. Dole appeared in places the candidate could not. 

In 2008, Michelle Obama connected with voters through her campaign speeches focusing on her working-class roots and family life. The celebratory fist bump she and Barack Obama shared on the campaign trail prompted praise and criticism and was in constant rotation on YouTube and news shows. As first lady, her approval ratings were consistently higher than the president’s.

The story about the role of candidates’ spouses is featured in “Every Four Years: Presidential Campaigns and the Press.”

"Every Four Years" was made possible through generous premier sponsorship from the American Association of University Women.

American Association of University Women

It's My Vote

Contributing sponsorship support is provided by The Washington Examiner.

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