Predictions of a Presidentess

A century ago, prognosticators saw a future in which a woman could be the chief executive—and men would be made obsolete.

Suffrage pageant participants dressed in white stand in front of the Treasury Building, in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913.
Suffrage pageant participants dressed in white stand in front of the Treasury Building, in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913. (Library of Congress)

Somewhere along the way, the idea of a woman being elected president of the United States started to seem inevitable.

The question was no longer if, but when it would happen.

In the United States, such prognostications became a favorite topic of debate in the early 20th century as women fought for the right to vote. And although headlines at the time screamed about the imminent “danger of a woman becoming president of the United States,” imagining the first woman president often meant exploring the contours of life in some far-off future that would be unrecognizable in several ways. After all, the new national obsession with a hypothetical female chief executive brought politics into a realm long dominated by technological thinkers: futurism. While some people predicted that a woman in office would stifle industrial progress, others  envisioned technology and gender equality marching forward in tandem.

A 1910 headline in the Meade County News, a Kansas newspaper. (Library of Congress)

Perhaps a woman would be elected president in the era of “electric wings,” a wearable device that would circumnavigate the Earth in five minutes and drop you off at your preferred destination almost instantly, as one 1892 advertisement predicted for the year 1992. Or maybe the first woman would be inaugurated president much sooner, by 1928, and celebrations would involve women navigating giant zeppelins over Washington, D.C., with suffragists parachuting down from above then riding in new-fangled automobiles on the streets.

By the year 1975, a Los Angeles Times humorist declared in 1928, airships would dominate the skies, miniskirts would be in fashion, and the United States would be transformed into a wholly matriarchal society. “By that time,” Harry Carr wrote, “there will doubtless be a lady President of the United States with a lady Cabinet and a lady Senate. Men will have been relegated to the status of other domestic animals.”

By 2022, a Washington Times writer surmised in 1922, New York City would have enormous glass skyscrapers, at least 80 stories high, connected by massive midair walkways. (The idea being: No one will ever have to step foot outside.) Subways would no longer exist, moving sidewalks would be ubiquitous, and automated labor would mean people would only have to work a few hours a day. “No man will be without his own aeroplane and electric automobile, with plenty of opportunity to enjoy them,” and anti-gravity shields would prevent aircrafts from crashing.

Yet many other predictions for American life with a female president instead focused on the presumed negatives: With a woman in charge, tobacco would lose its potency, women would start wearing trousers, the halls of power would fill with squalling babies, and the nation’s global standing would evaporate.“The Secretaryship of the Navy will be eventually abolished, and all our big battleships will be turned into floating department stores,” the essayist Benjamin De Casseres wrote for The New York Times in 1920.

And so: Despite widespread predictions about the inevitability of technological progress, the notion of a woman president was widely seen as counter to such advances.

“The tendency in Western thought to imagine women as aligned with nature—and men with culture—placed women on the side of biology and tradition against the forces of technology and change,” wrote Lisa Tickner in The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907—14. “The paradox here lay in the proposition that modernization did not apply to women.”

New York City in the year 2022, as imagined in 1922. (Library of Congress)

This may help explain why great technological leaps were seen as certainties, while many futurists in the 20th century believed a woman wouldn’t be elected president for another millennia—if ever. “Methusaleh lived 969 years, but we doubt that even if he were just beginning life now he would be able to attend the inauguration of a woman president,” a columnist for the Meade County News wrote in 1910. In 1919, one Florida newspaper predicted the election of a “presidentess” the following year—as part its hoax-news April Fool’s Day edition.

At the time, anyone who attempted to normalize the idea that a woman might one day occupy the Oval Office wasn’t just challenging perceptions of women’s place in society, but also pushing back against deeply entrenched cultural ideas about women’s relationship with technology—despite the fact that, in many cases, technology had already helped expand women’s roles in society. “On one level, the struggle for women’s emancipation can be read as a struggle for women’s rights to the fruits of modernization,” Tickner wrote. “Social mobility, urbanization, the growth of education, and new forms of industrial organization and negotiation, the development of social services and the extension of the franchise.”

A century ago, the idea that a woman could ever be president was as radical a notion as the idea that women ought to enjoy the benefits of new technology. In 1913, the opera star Lillian Nordica made headlines just for saying that she believed a woman would eventually win the nation’s highest office. (Then again, perhaps not much has changed: Female celebrities still make headlines when they call themselves feminists.)

“Women have just as good chances in the professions as men,” Nordica told The San Francisco Call in 1913. “They must work harder than men to accomplish the same thing. Some day, when a woman is elected president, you can put a finger on the hardest working woman in the United States.”

In 1923, the restaurateur and feminist Alice Foote MacDougall predicted that women would run all of the world’s major businesses within the century. “I don’t pretend to predict what some men will do,” she said. “Someone has to do the housekeeping, I suppose... Probably by that time, though, inventors will have relieved human drudgery to such an extent that it will be pretty easy for the men.” (MacDougall was right that technology would change expectations about housework—though these changes haven’t always helped women or men in straightforward ways. Overall in the United States, women still clean around the house more than their male partners.)

Still, MacDougall’s comment gets at the heart of the major preoccupation among those who wondered about what a future with a female president might be like: Forget the towering skyscrapers and transportation technology, what about the men?

“With the ratification by Tennessee of the Nineteenth Amendment, man in America has become a mere remnant,” De Casseres wrote in his 1920 Times essay. “He will soon be on the political bargain counter… shrunken to a query, cowed, canned, and corked.”

“Nothing is too fantastic or improbable for the mind of woman,” he continued. “She waves facts aside... What she feels constitutes the truth. Historical facts are of no more importance to her than last year’s hat bill. Justice is getting what she wants. Logic is a mere instrument to prove the invulnerability of her prejudices. The platform of the coming Matriarchy in America will be: ‘We want it; therefore it is right. Be it enacted that we take it.’”

De Casseres goes on to predict an all-female Supreme Court in which every precedent is overturned, and—instead of the Committee on Foreign Relations—a newly enacted Committee on Getting Even. (“The soul of women,” he explains, “being an arsenal of suppressed grievances.”)

Clearly, men were “afraid to be put at the mercy of women,” as the New York Sun put it in a prescient 1893 article. Men will have “no opportunity” once women get the vote, a 1913 story in The Evening Star warned. Then there were the practical concerns, like this question posed to a Minnesota newspaper in 1920: “When a married woman becomes president of the United States, what will be the proper way to address her husband?”

Much of the coverage devoted to predicting what life might be like with a female president was equally concerned with reassuring male readers that such a future would never actually arrive. “Men need not worry,” the El Paso Herald wrote in 1913. “A woman’s nature cannot be changed and the ballot will not change them.”

The Washington Times, in 1916, described the “terrible picture” of a female president as a “disgusting loud-voiced woman, in trousers, with her hair cut short, sitting in the seat of the Chief Executive at the White House,” but also promised readers that such a future would never be realized.

“The desire to sit in high places and hold office is not inherent in the woman, as it is in the man,” the newspaper wrote. (Some women apparently agreed with this assessment: “Who wants to be a presidentess!” a New York Times reader identified only as “a lady” wrote in a letter to the editor in 1909.) There’s another cultural force at play in all of this: The act of predicting the future has long been a male-dominated intellectual pursuit. Women aren’t just skewered in what’s imagined, but often left out of doing any of the the imagining.

In reality, though, many women have long dreamed of a future in which the presidency is attainable for them, for their daughters, and for their granddaughters. Now, nearly a century after winning the right to vote, it seems possible that another once-distant future has finally arrived.