Hillary Clinton stood under an actual glass ceiling Tuesday evening as she at last broke the figurative glass ceiling that had eluded her eight years earlier.

After months of primary voting and years in waiting as the party's heir apparent, Clinton declared herself the party's nominee, the first woman in a major US political party to do so.

"We are all standing under a glass ceiling right now, but don't worry we aren't smashing this one," she joked. It was the figurative one that has kept women out of top jobs that she broke through.

"Thanks to you we've reached a milestone - the first time in our nation's history that a woman will be a major party's nominee."

Clinton's feat comes 144 years after the first woman ran for US president to protest women's lack of a right to vote and 96 years after women won the right to vote in the United States.

She had come close before, but fell short against Barack Obama's historic campaign in 2008.

"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it," Clinton told supporters in her concession speech as Obama broke his own barriers as the nation's first African American president.

Clinton paid tribute Tuesday to the women who blazed the trail for women's rights and her own mother who was born on the day Congress approved the constitutional amendment that eventually granted women the right to vote. In a video, her campaign showed images of women making advances through the years.

Ellen Malcolm, the founder of Emily's List, a group that works to elect Democratic women candidates, said it had once seemed inconceivable that the US would elect a female president, but "tonight I saw the first half of a dream come true, as Hillary became the Democratic nominee."

While the National Organization for Women declared Clinton's victory "momentous."

"Hillary's achievement brings us that much closer to the equality envisioned by women's rights leaders nearly two centuries ago," the group's president Terry O'Neill said.

Prior to her Tuesday victories however Clinton had not focused extensively on her gender, playing up instead her years of experience on the national stage and her policy proposals.

But when Donald Trump alleged in April that Clinton would not be where she is if she were a man and accused her of playing the "woman card," Clinton's campaign fired back and used the Republican's words in fundraising efforts, going so far as to give out cards to supporters emblazoned with "Woman Card" and designed to look like New York subway cards.

One Clinton supporter in Santa Monica, California, Lareen Russell, told dpa she voted for Clinton "because it is time for a woman in the White House."

Clinton has spent most of her adult life on the political stage, but for many of those years she was at the side of her husband Bill Clinton, first when he was governor of Arkansas and then when he became president.

Clinton came under fire in Arkansas as a feminist unwilling to take her husband's surname and instead using Hillary Rodham during his early campaigns.

As first lady, she took a more activist role than many presidential wives, heading up a failed drive to expand health care and later advocating for human rights around the world, declaring "women's rights are human rights" during a speech in China.

Clinton came into her own on the political stage after running as a senator from New York and ultimately being tapped as Obama's first secretary of state.

Her long time on the national scene however will likely prove a challenge for Clinton as she now seeks the presidency. Americans have named her the most admired woman for 20 years in a row in a survey by pollster Gallup, but at the same time more than half of voters have an unfavourable view of her.

An intense dislike of Clinton is likely to motivate many older Republicans to oppose her at the polls, even as their own candidate inspires similar vitriol among much of the electorate.

While acknowledging her own experience and the historic nature of her candidacy, Clinton on Tuesday sought to look toward the future rather than the past.

"Yes, there are still ceilings for women to break," she said. "But don't let anyone tell you great things can't happen in America."

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