Was there some statute or other law a century ago that said only males could serve as president? If so, when did that change (if in fact it did)?

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    There's some analysis in this article. The conclusion seems to be "language is ambiguous and no court has ruled on the question". The question was probably more difficult before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting female suffrage; but in regard to your original question, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified a few weeks before Wilson's stroke. Jun 9, 2016 at 23:52
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    @NateEldredge : From the article it appears that there was never a law that said a woman couldn't be president. The Constitution says "he" shall serve a four-year term and "he" shall have this power and that power, and "he" shall be at least 35 years old. BUT the framers did NOT always intend "he" to mean a male: they wrote "A Person charged in any State with [a] Crime, who shall flee from Justice, and be found in another State, shall on Demand of the executive Authority of the State from which he fled, be delivered up..." They cannot have intended to exempt women. Jun 10, 2016 at 0:51
  • Well, as the article makes clear, scholars are divided as to what the framers intended, or how a court would have ruled had the issue been raised at various points in history. Your argument makes sense to me, but I certainly can't claim to be any expert. Jun 10, 2016 at 4:53

2 Answers 2


The language argument about the constitution is that the Constitution uses the pronoun "he" in referring to the president – they would not have used the construction "he or she", or "s/he". Article I also uses "he" to refer to qualifications of representatives and senators (residency, age). Then in creating the office of predident pro tempore of the Senate, it uses "he" to refer to a Vice President who is exercising the office of President of the United States. In Article IV Section II it states:

A person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime.

Thus women cannot be extradited, if the "'he' means male" theory prevails.

In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for president, and while it is true there were questions about her eligibility, that was because of her age rather than sex. Belva Lockwood ran for president in 1884 and 1888. This is not strong enough to constitute proof that being female was not a bar to holding the office, but it is indicative of that conclusion. The strongest evidence that the use of "he" in the Constitution had no significance is the fact that Jeanette Rankin was elected US Representative from Montana in 1916, 2 years before Congress approved the 19th Amendment.

Since the only way to impose any restrictions on the presidency is via the Constitution (i.e. Congress can't pass a law redefining the qualification for office), and since the use of "he" has never been strictly interpreted to preclude female senators and representatives, we have to conclude that there never has been a prohibition against a female president.

  • I think 1916 is when Jeanette Rankin was elected. But I don't know whether the state of Montana allowed women to vote at that time. Do you? Jun 10, 2016 at 1:11
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    You're right, I corrected that. They did have the vote in Montana in 1914 which no doubt aided her election.
    – user6726
    Jun 10, 2016 at 1:35
  • "Congress can't pass a law redefining the qualification for office". I wonder about that. Certainly Congress can't validly pass a law saying someone under 35 or someone who's not a citizen can be president. But what if they passed a law saying the president must be at least 36 years old? Jun 10, 2016 at 3:37
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    That would almost certainly also be found unconstitutional. If the legislature can pass laws tightening the requirements of the office, then they can select the president outright by tightening the requirements so much that they bar any other feasible candidate. Broadly, the constitution makes it clear that the states select the president, and that the legislature's capacity to interfere is in reaction to specific failures on case-by-case basis: they break ties and prosecute impeachments.
    – Eikre
    Jun 14, 2019 at 15:41

The first lady is not part of the legal line succession for presidency in the United States, and she never has been. Throwing in Wilson and suffrage is all relatively moot. There's no need for any "formal" statute which states specifically that one single individual is ineligible.

The gender of the president's spouse has little to do with anything. The First Lady is not a formally elected nor appointed government official and therefore ineligible. The US could have a female president and the "first man" would be equally ineligible.

US Presidential line of succession

1 Vice President
2 Speaker of the House of Representatives
3 President pro tempore of the Senate
4 Secretary of State
5 Secretary of the Treasury
6 Secretary of Defense
7 Attorney General
— Secretary of the Interior 8 Secretary of Agriculture
9 Secretary of Commerce 10 Secretary of Labor
11 Secretary of Health and Human Services
12 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
13 Secretary of Transportation
14 Secretary of Energy
15 Secretary of Education
16 Secretary of Veterans Affairs
17 Secretary of Homeland Security

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    This also doesn't answer the question. The question is was it formerly illegal for a woman to be president, not can the First Lady become president
    – Dale M
    Jun 9, 2016 at 23:48
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    Question was edited (several times) apparently as I posted.
    – Scott
    Jun 9, 2016 at 23:48
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    Nope, question was always "Was it formerly illegal for a woman to be president of the United States?" Per the edit history. I believe the example given may have confused you.
    – Dale M
    Jun 9, 2016 at 23:51
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    Huh? Scott? What just happened? Judging by the comments I see, you're being pretty unfriendly. If someone makes note of something that doesn't address a question, you should respond to that, and improve your answer to specifically address it, not start an argument in the comments.
    – Zizouz212
    Jun 10, 2016 at 1:45
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    This answers the original question, which was "A comment under the article said she [the first lady] would have been legally forbidden to actually be president at that time. Is that true?" Jun 10, 2016 at 16:34

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