Movies · TV

A History of Women Presidents of the United States in Movies and Television

By  · Published on July 28th, 2016

Fiction is still the only place we’ve seen the glass ceiling broken.

This November, the people of the United States of America could elect the first woman to their highest office. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency over Donald Trump (and the other party candidates), she will make history and fulfill the reality of an idea we’ve so far only seen in pop culture. Below we focus only on those who’ve led the US on screen, in movies and on television. It’s a history that itself is only about one-quarter the age of the nation. And you’ll note how few of them were elected to the office and how few of them are able to keep their job and/or are depicted competently.

1948: President Olive Oyl (voiced by Mae Questel) in Olive Oyl for PresidentThe very first (known?) screen depiction of a woman POTUS comes in the form of a dream sequence in an animated short, as Popeye envisions his girlfriend running for and then winning the US presidency. Once in office, she makes married men tax exempt, clearly to get her own beau to propose (but she also gets a hot male secretary). And of course it’s a cartoon, so when she gets to Washington, she finds all the Republicans are actually elephants and the Democrats are actually donkeys.

1953: Madame President (Ernestine Barrier) in Project Moonbase ‐ Not only is this sci-fi movie the first feature to depict a female commander-in-chief but it also places her in the White House earlier than most. Set in the then near future of 1970, Project Moonbase has the US with a woman president before even putting a man on the Moon. The movie also puts a woman on the moon at the same time, to boot.

1964: President Leslie McCloud (Polly Bergen) in Kisses for My PresidentAlthough its premise involves the first woman being elected President, this barely progressive comedy is still all about how that affects the man in her life, played by top-billed Fred McMurray. Interestingly enough, the movie is released at the end of a year that saw woman candidates for both the Republican and Democratic nomination.

1985: President Julia Mansfield (Patty Duke) in Hail to the Chief — In between her Emmy-nominated role as the first First Lady in CBS’s hit George Washington miniseries, Duke plays the first female POTUS in a bad ABC sitcom that makes her into an extreme working woman also still tasked with taking care of her family. The show, which also features a gay Secret Service agent, is cancelled after only seven episodes.

1986: President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swift) in Whoops ApocalypseBased on a British sitcom from 1982, this political satire’s changes for the big screen include making the President a woman. The R-rated movie also has its own gay supporting character, as well as a young, pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards playing a terrorist and Peter Cook in the part of the UK Prime Minister.

1987: President Rivers (Joan Rivers) in Les Patterson Saves the WorldThis time it’s the Australians who put a woman in the White House for their political farce, and it’s none other than Rivers seemingly just playing herself as comedian-in-chief. It’s a brief part, however, as this is primarily a vehicle for Barry Humphries and his popular TV characters Sir Les Patterson and, in drag, Dame Edna Everage.

1992: The President of the United States in X-Men: The Animated Series — In the second part of the pilot to the popular Saturday morning X-Men cartoon, “Night of the Sentinels,” a woman POTUS is briefly seen on TV addressing the nation and then again working out in the White House as she orders the government’s anti-mutant Sentinel program shut down.

1998: President Diane Steen (Christina Applegate) in Jane Austen’s Mafia! — Another ridiculous comedy, of course. In this lampoon of The Godfather from one of the guys behind Airplane!, Applegate pretty much plays the Diane Keaton role, hence having the name Diane. She starts out similarly as just an idealistic contrasting figure to the gangster life of her boyfriend (Jay Mohr) but eventually becomes President.

2000: President Lisa Simpson (voiced by Yeardley Smith) in The SimpsonsIn the season 11 episode “Bart to the Future,” Bart Simpson is shown a vision of the future in which his sister, Lisa, is the first “straight” woman POTUS (there’s an implication that Chaz Bono, then still identifying as a lesbian woman, was previously in the Oval Office). Amazingly, the episode also makes a reference to Donald Trump being a former commander-in-chief who’d run the country into the ground.

2000: President Mary Alice ‘Muffy’ (voiced by Melissa Altro) in ArthurSimilar to The Simpsons, this one is part of a flash forward or dream sequence where a regular child character on the PBS cartoon series is shown to one day become the President of the United States in the season five episode “The Election.”

2001: The President of the United States (Sally Champlin) in Perfect Lover — Once again it’s a sci-fi setting where POTUS is a woman. The film, also known as The Woman Every Man Wants, takes place in a future where women are not just equal but the more dominant gender. So a female commander-in-chief is commonplace. But the plot centers around a man wanting and old-fashioned complacent, but sexy, woman.

2005: President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief — Twenty years after Hail to the Chief, ABC airs another show about the first woman POTUS, this one a drama and lasting a little longer ‐ a single season of 18 episodes. Even a decade ago, the premise doesn’t even involve the election of a woman to the Oval Office. Allen is merely the first female Vice President, who ascends when the President dies. Rod Lurie, who’d previously directed the film The Contender, which is about the vetting of a potential woman VP, is the series’ creator.

2006: President Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig) in Prison BreakThe next woman POTUS, also meant to be the historical first, is also a TV character who had been elected VP and then replaces a commander-in-chief who dies. The twist here [SPOILER] is that Reynolds was the one who murdered the President. She later resigns for health reasons but also winds up in prison.

2006: President Hillary Clinton (Peggy Frankston) in L‘Etat de GraceHow hopeful the French are that a comedy miniseries about their own fictional first woman president should feature a portrayal of Hillary Clinton as the President of the United States in two episodes. When the program airs, Clinton is still just seeking reelection to the Senate, but it is expected she will run for the higher office soon.

2008: President Sally Sheridan (Mimi Kuzyk) in XIII: The ConspiracyBased on the Belgian graphic novel series “XIII,” the two-part TV miniseries (also functioning as a pilot for an ongoing series) version makes its initial POTUS character a woman instead of a man. But it doesn’t really matter since she’s assassinated at the very beginning, setting off the plot in which her brother is later elected to replace her.

2008: President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) in 24 — Finally a woman is elected President of the United States on a series. Taylor is a former US Senator who beat the incumbent as the Republican candidate prior to the events of the TV movie 24: Redemption, in which she’s inaugurated into office. The character remains commander-in-chief through two full seasons but resigns and goes to prison at the end of season eight. Apparently the character as written is inspired by Clinton, but Jones plays her as if the opposite were true.

2012: The President of the United States (Stephanie Paul) in Iron Sky — Instead of Clinton, the female POTUS here is based on Sarah Palin, who is the Republican VP candidate at the time of the movie’s release, only with a Southern accent instead of Alaskan. She leads the US against an attack by Nazis from the Moon but nuclear war breaks out on Earth in the end. POTUS apparently survives, though, as she will be back next year in the sequel, Iron Sky: The Coming Race. Now living in Antarctica and reportedly revealed to have been secretly a member of a reptilian race.

2013: Acting President Sally Langston (Kate Burton) in Scandal — Like many women characters serving as POTUS in movies and TV, Langston is sworn in via the guidelines of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. The difference this time is that the President hasn’t died but is just incapacitated by an attempted assassination. Langston is only temporarily commander-in-chief and not technically the first woman POTUS.

2014: President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in VeepHaving begun the comedy series in 2012 as the titular Vice President, Meyer suddenly ascends to the POTUS role at the end of the third season while actually running for the presidency. She continues the campaign so she can be the first woman elected to the job, but unfortunately [SPOILER], that doesn’t go quite as planned (see 2016).

2014: President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard) in State of AffairsNot only is Payton the first woman POTUS but she’s also the first black woman to hold the office. She’s also a more prominent character in her series than most on this list, as the focus of the series, which was cancelled after one season, is on a CIA analyst (Katherine Heigl) who meets with the President for daily security briefings.

2015: President Amanda Waller (voiced by Penny Johnson Jerald) in Justice League: Gods and Monsters — In a direct-to-video animated feature depicting an alternate DC superhero universe, the also African-American Waller (the character played by Viola Davis in the upcoming movie Suicide Squad) just happens to be POTUS. In most DC continuity, she’s a lower government official and has been an advisor to the president. Here she’s presumably the first black woman in the White House.

2015: Acting President Elizabeth A. McCord (Tea Leoni) in Madame SecretaryAnother temp, McCord is the lead character of her series, a Secretary of State who took over for a dead guy. In the Morgan Freeman-helmed second season premiere, she’s sworn in as Acting President when POTUS’s plane disappears. But he’s back and she returns to her real position by the end of the episode.

2015: Acting President Natalie Maccabee (Sharon Stone) in Agent XAnd yet another temp, Maccabee is the newly elected Vice President who quite shortly and briefly takes the oath of the office of the President after POTUS is shot. Agent X is cancelled by the end of the year, so we never get to see if she could have taken over the gig permanently one day.

2016: President Elizabeth Lanford (Sela Ward) in Independence Day: ResurgenceIt’s not surprising to see a woman POTUS in the latest movie directed by Hillary Clinton supporter Roland Emmerich, though it is interesting that Lanford is a Republican. Of course, the ID4 sequel can’t have the wife of the Bill Clinton-inspired President Whitmore take the position as she [SPOILER] died in the original.

2016: President Laura Montez (Andrea Savage) in VeepAt the end of the fifth season of Veep [SPOILER], President Selina Meyer loses her attempt to become elected to the office she serves through ascendency. In a surprise twist, her replacement is another woman, Montez, who’d been up for VP but ascends and is inaugurated, technically in 2017, through a strange and not quite realistic (in our world) process.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.