Every Time It Happens, They Say It’s The First Time

One of the really puzzling phenomena, for example, has been the habitual reference to Clinton’s run as “the first serious campaign for president by a woman.” That is how I heard it described on a cable news program half an hour ago. Chances are, a similar formulation is being used by someone in media-land right this very second. It is hopelessly ahistorical, yet now practically inescapable.In her examination of press coverage between 1872 and 2004, Falk finds that this pattern – what she calls “the novelty frame” – has recurred time and again. The important exception, it seems, was the one time when it was literally true. While reporters were amused and/or appalled by Victoria Woodhull, they evidently never took her bid seriously enough to consider it a real campaign.

Each subsequent woman running for president, however, has been portrayed as an anomaly — someone making an experiment untried ever before. And so when Margaret Chase Smith sought the Republican nomination in 1964, a newspaper columnist wrote that she enjoyed “the distinction of having been the first woman in the country to bid for [the presidential] office.” (Actually she was at least the third.) Eight years later, Shirley Chisholm became, as another reporter put it, “the first black woman to seek a major-party nomination.”

In 1987, when Pat Schroeder began her campaign, commentators had to stretch a bit: “If Schroeder gets into the race,” went one account, “she will be the first woman to seek a major party presidential campaign since 1972.” And now, a two decades later, it seems that Hillary Clinton, too, is boldly going where only men have gone before.

From Hillary-ious, over at Inside Higher Ed


  1. I’ve been getting irritated about the same thing with Obama. The “first time” coverage is just as annoying, especially after Iowa when newscasters were getting all emotional over it. Yes, he’s doing better than any African American candidates have before, but that doesn’t mean he’s the first. It’s ok if you don’t want to give Al Sharpton or Alan Keyes any credit, but Jesse Jackson, anyone? Anyone?

  2. This is something that Marilynne Robinson discussed in a talk here at Amherst recently—the selective amnesia of the US, where as a nation we are constantly forgetting or being asked to forget that women and blacks are capable members of society—full members, who can vote and be educated, contributing citizens with all of the rights and capabilities attendant with that status. It’s frightening to watch it in action, to see people insist that Hillary and Barack are the ‘first’.

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