Six Unforgettable “Firsts” in U.S. Presidential Election History: 1970-2020

While we still have a long way to go, the past decades have brought significant changes, and those changes reach all the way to the Oval Office.

In 2018, the United States made history in more ways than one. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress, while Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American women elected to the House. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Meanwhile, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema became the first openly bisexual senator, and Colorado’s Jared Polis became the first openly gay man elected governor of a state in America.

Then, 2020 arrived, bringing with it what many considered to be the most diverse Democratic field in American history. The 116th Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever, perhaps a reflection of an American public that increasingly advocates for representation in government.

In honor of the continued push for inclusion and diversity in politics, let’s take a look back at just six historic “firsts” that have unfolded in the last fifty years of U.S. presidential elections.

1. Shirley Chisholm, the First Black Woman to Run for President

Shirley ChisholmShirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to Congress. She represented New York’s predominately Black Bedford Stuyvesant district, Dec. 1968. Image via Everett Collection/​Shutterstock.

In 1972, nearly seventy years after George Edwin Taylor became the first African American man to run for President and decades before Carol Moseley Braun famously sought the Democratic nomination, this congresswoman made her historic bid for the White House under the iconic slogan “unbought and unbossed.”

Congresswoman Shirley ChisholmShirley Chisholm was an African American Congresswoman from Brooklyn, New York, circa 1973. Image via Everett Collection/​Shutterstock.

Chisholm had made history four years earlier when she became the first Black woman elected to Congress and a founding member of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus, but she wasn’t done yet.

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” she once said. And, as a leader in the feminist movement, she took that folding chair all the way to the top.

Congresswoman Shirley ChisholmDemocratic U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Presidential nomination, January 25, 1972. Image via Glasshouse Images/​Shutterstock.

Chisholm’s campaign saw her facing the likes of George McGovern, Henry M. Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie, and George Wallace. And, although she didn’t win, her courage and ambition paved the way for future generations. Later she’d say she didn’t want to be remembered as the country’s first Black congresswoman, but simply for being who she was. “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts,” she reflected.

Rep. Shirley ChisholmRep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) addresses about 400 people in the gymnasium of the Cambridge Community Center, Cambridge, Mass., where she opened her campaign for the presidency. Image via Bill Chaplis/​AP/​Shutterstock.

In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And, when Kamala Harris announced her run for president in 2019, she referenced Chisholm with a red and yellow logo resembling her fellow trailblazer’s buttons.

Democratic Presidential Candidate Shirley ChisholmDemocratic presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm addresses students at Cal State at Long Beach, June 17, 1972. She was the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States. Image via Everett Collection/​Shutterstock.

2. Patsy Mink, the First Asian American Woman to Run for President

Hiram Fong, a Republican, was the first Asian American man to run for President in 1964 and 1968, and Patsy Mink, a Democrat, was the first Asian American woman to run four years later. As a child, this gender equality and civil rights advocate set the precedent by becoming the first female class president of her school. Later, she became the first Japanese-American woman licensed to practice law in her home state of Hawaii.

Bella Abzug, Patsy Mink, and Gloria SteinemBella Abzug (left) and Patsy Mink (forefront), of Women USA, sit with arms crossed while Gloria Steinem speaks in Washington, where they “served notice” on presidential candidates that promises will not be enough to get their support in the next election. Image via Harvey Georges/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Today, you might know Mink as the first woman of color elected to Congress. She leaves behind an enduring legacy, both with her story and with Title IX—the law she sponsored that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs receiving federal assistance. Following her death, it was given a new name: the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.

Rep. Patsy MinkRep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) meets reporters on Capitol Hill to call on the Senate Judiciary Committee to support Bill Lann Lee’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. Image via Joe Marquette/​AP/​Shutterstock.

When Hillary Clinton became the first woman to receive a major-party nomination, Mink’s daughter, the feminist scholar Gwendolyn Mink, would reflect on her mother’s work, describing the series of emotions she experienced: “Joy that my mother’s work as a legislator and candidate was part of the arc of feminist change. Sadness that she isn’t here to celebrate and enjoy this achievement. Relief that finally, finally, a woman will lead the Democratic ticket.”

President Clinton Signs the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Awareness ProclamationPresident Bill Clinton reaches for a pen as he hands another pen used in signing the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Awareness Proclamation to Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), during the signing ceremony at the White House. Looking on are (from left) Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI), and Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.). Image via Marcy Nighswander/​AP/​Shutterstock.

3. Barack Obama, America’s First Black President

Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Barack ObamaDemocratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks at a rally in front of the Ross County Courthouse in Chillicothe, Ohio. Image via Alex Brandon/​AP/​Shutterstock.

In 1990, The New York Times reported that the Harvard Law Review had elected its first Black president in 104 years: a twenty-eight-year-old man by the name of Barack Obama. Eighteen years later, he would become the first Black President of the United States, following the highest voter turnout the nation had seen in four decades. By 2009, he had become the third sitting U.S. President in history to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.

President-elect Barack ObamaPresident-elect Barack Obama walks on stage to deliver his victory speech at his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago, Ill. Image via David Guttenfelder/​AP/​Shutterstock.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” he declared in his victory speech on that pivotal night. His words resounded across Chicago’s Grant Park, where 125,000 people had waited in breathless anticipation to hear the results of the election, and far beyond.

President-elect Barack ObamaPresident-elect Barack Obama speaks to supporters during his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago, Ill. Image via M Spencer Green/​AP/​Shutterstock.

In 2017, at his final news conference as President, Obama told the public, “If, in fact, we continue to keep opportunity open to everybody […] we’re going to have a woman president. We’re going to have a Latino president. And, we’ll have a Jewish president, a Hindu president. You know, who knows who we’re going to have.”

He went on to discuss the significance of voting rights and their role in preserving our democracy—an important reminder then, as well as now.

President-elect Barack Obama Hugs Michelle ObamaPresident-elect Barack Obama hugs his wife, Michelle, after his acceptance speech at his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago, Ill. Image via Morry Gash/​AP/​Shutterstock.

4. Fred Karger, the First Openly Gay Candidate to Run for a Major-Party Nomination

Republican Fred KargerObscure Republican Candidate for United States president Fred Karger (R) along with members of his campaign, Kevin Miniter (L) and James Baer (C), walks along Main Street introducing himself to voters in Nashua, New Hampshire, January 5, 2012. Image via Cj Gunther/​EPA/​Shutterstock.

This political consultant and LGBTQ+ rights advocate ran for the Republican nomination in 2012. It was a long-shot campaign, but he understood the significance of being the first openly gay, major-party Presidential candidate. As he told Buzzfeed News in 2019, he was inspired in part by Shirley Chisholm and how her actions helped open doors for others.

Republican Fred KargerRepublican candidate for U.S. President Fred Karger holds one of his “Press Kits” with his campaign slogan “Fred Who?” following a radio interview at WSMN 1590 AM in Nashua, New Hampshire, January 5, 2012. Image via Cj Gunther/​EPA/​Shutterstock.

When Pete Buttigieg later became the first openly gay candidate to reach the top-tier in a major party’s nomination process, Karger supported him and donated to his campaign. “Hearing him speak with that huge crowd and all the attention he was getting, and then watching his husband come out at the end—the embrace, the kiss,” Karger reflected in the summer of 2019. “That’s when I started sobbing tears of joy.”

Republican Presidential Candidate Fred KargerKevin Miniter (L), state campaign coordinator, smiles as Republican presidential candidate, Fred Karger, fills out his form at the Secretary of State’s office in Concord, N.H., to be on the ballot for the New Hampshire presidential primary. Image via Jim Cole/​AP/​Shutterstock.

5. Hillary Clinton, the First Female Nominee of a Major Political Party

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary ClintonDemocratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton smiles as she arrives to speak at a rally at Goodyear Hall and Theater in Akron, Ohio. Image via Andrew Harnik/​AP/​Shutterstock.

In 2016, almost a decade after her first bid for President, this former First Lady and Secretary of State became the first woman nominated for the U.S. presidency by a major political party. It was nearly a century (96 years) since women had first won the right to vote. As she once put it, “This campaign is about making sure there are no ceilings—no limit—on any of us,” a reference to her concession speech in 2008, when she said the country had made “18 million cracks” in the nation’s highest glass ceiling.

Hillary Clinton and Al GoreHillary Clinton with Al Gore at the presidential campaign in Miami, Florida, October 11, 2016. Image via Larry Marano/​Shutterstock.

Audiences Cheer at Clinton RallyMembers of the audience cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at Goodyear Hall and Theater in Akron, Ohio. Image via Andrew Harnik/​AP/​Shutterstock.

In the end, Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million, but lost the electoral college. Still, the milestone left her name forever emblazoned in American history. That election, women dressed in pantsuits to cast their ballots, and people from around the nation gathered around the grave of Susan B. Anthony, paying homage to those who fought for women’s suffrage all those years ago. 

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary ClintonDemocratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hugs Karla Ortiz (left) backstage after speaking at a rally at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525 Union Hall in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image via Andrew Harnik/​AP/​Shutterstock.

6. Kamala Harris, the First Woman of Color on a Major-Party Presidential Ticket

Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala HarrisDemocratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. Image via Carolyn Kaster/​AP/​Shutterstock.

In August, the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced this U.S. senator as his V.P. pick, but that wasn’t the first time she’d made history. The daughter of immigrant academics, Harris grew up with what she calls a “stroller’s-eye view” of the Civil Rights Movement. By 2003 and 2010, respectively, she became the first Black woman district attorney of San Francisco and the first woman elected as attorney general of California.

Joe Biden and Kamala HarrisDemocratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) watch fireworks during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. Image via Andrew Harnik/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala HarrisDemocratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at Carpenters Local Union 1912 in Phoenix, Arizona to kick off a “small business” bus tour. Image via Carolyn Kaster/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Thirty-six years after Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket, Harris became the first Black woman, as well as the first person of Indian descent, to join a major-party ticket. Within a month of this writing, Harris could be elected as the first woman to hold the office of Vice President.

Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala HarrisDemocratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks after visiting the “This Is the Place Monument” in Salt Lake City. The monument commemorates the end of the westward journey of Mormon pioneers to Utah, as well as early explorers of the West. Image via Patrick Semansky/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Senator Kamala HarrisDemocratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks in Washington. Image via Carolyn Kaster/​AP/​Shutterstock.

“This week marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment,” she said at the Democratic National Convention this summer. “And, we celebrate the women who fought for that right. Yet, so many of the Black women who helped secure that victory were still prohibited from voting, long after its ratification.’

“But, they were undeterred. Without fanfare or recognition, they organized, testified, rallied, marched, and fought—not just for their vote, but for a seat at the table […] We’re not often taught their stories. But, as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders.”

Cover image via M Spencer Green/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Discover more groundbreaking American political history with these image tours from the Shutterstock archives:

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