Women's roles in American politics have changed since the founding from "motherhood" (raising virtuous sons) to "housekeeping" (helping the poor by joining committees) to "parity" (running for office and saving the world). Hillary Rodham Clinton is following in the footsteps of many women who influenced our nation's development toward a more equitable society.

Easy to read and thoroughly enjoyable is Ellen Fitzpatrick's "The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency," published in this election year. It is a collection of brief biographies of four American women who have thrown their hats into the ring in our nation's history.

Fitzpatrick begins with Victoria Woodhull, who sought the presidency in 1872 as a standard bearer for the short-lived Equality Party. She was one of the most scandalous characters of her time - the first woman stockbroker on Wall Street, alongside her sister Tennessee Claflin, who used some of their proceeds to found a newspaper advocating sex education, free love, vegetarianism, licensed prostitution, and spiritualism. They printed the first English version of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. Woodhull was the first woman to testify before Congress about suffrage.

A good general biography of Woodhull is "The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull" by Lois Beachy Underhill. It is not the newest bio of her, but it is my favorite.

Fitzpatrick's second subject is Margaret Chase Smith from Maine, who began her public service by completing her husband's term in the House of Representatives after his death in 1940. In 1948 she was elected to the Senate, where she served until 1973. During the 1950s, as a moderate Republican, she tried to rein in the extremism of McCarthyism. She defended the right to free speech and association in her famous 1950 "Declaration of Conscience" - a prescient document for 2016: "It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom."

In 1964 Chase Smith challenged Barry Goldwater for the Republican presidential nomination, making her the first woman to be formally nominated at a major party's convention. Although she eventually released her delegates to Goldwater, Chase Smith showed it was possible for a woman to garner national support for the highest office.

For a complete life story I recommend "No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith" by Janann Sherman.

The third subject of "The Highest Glass Ceiling" is unbought and unbossed Shirley Chisholm, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972. After serving in the House of Representatives (the first black woman elected to that body) for two terms, she was ready to take on the Democratic Party, which had been promising a bigger tent for women and minorities for years.

It was only in 1964 that Democrats were forced, by Fannie Lou Hamer (read: "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" by Kay Mills), to put their money where their mouth was and really start considering non-white participation at the party conventions.

By 1972, Shirley Chisholm emerged as a new face for politics and a boost to feminists all across the U.S. Her autobiography, "Unbought and Unbossed," is a must-read for those interested in political women.

"Glass Ceiling" ends with a brief overview of Clinton's extensive political life. Much has been written by and about her. One book, from 2008, that I recommend is "Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers," edited by Susan Morrison. It sets useful context and gives insights into understanding the woman who may likely be the first woman president of the United States.

Zoe Irene VanSandt teaches history and lives in Austin, Texas.

Editor's note: This essay was published in a longer version in "BookWomen," Aug./Sept. 2016

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