Taking her place at the podium, the vice-presidential nominee looked out at a sea of smiling women’s faces. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated by a major political party to national office, was momentarily taken aback as she gazed at the ecstatic delegates. “It was the most amazing thing. There were women all over.” She wondered why that was so, and proceeded to give her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention of 1984. Afterwards Ferraro found out that many of the male delegates who had female alternates had given the women their floor passes so that they could fully participate in the historic event.

It would be 24 years before another woman was elevated to the same position. But in 1984, it was thrilling to see Ferraro break into what was still a white men’s club, despite the significant changes won by the women’s movement of the 70s.

Before becoming a mother, Ferraro had taught and practiced law part time. She had made a pact with her husband when they were first married that she would stay home when they had children, remain there until the youngest was in school full time and then go back to working outside the home. Overcoming her husband’s initial reluctance—“my mother never worked”—she recalled that she had countered, “Your mother isn’t a lawyer.” Ferraro became Assistant District Attorney and used her skills to protect victims of rape, child abuse and domestic violence. She named the “Special Victims Bureau.” The assistant D.A. wanted people to stop being victims or perpetrators of these crimes, “and I figured the way to do that was to get into a legislature and start to make changes.”

Not surprisingly, Ferraro confronted gender stereotypes and unabashed sexism throughout her career, but never more so than in the vice-presidential pre-election debate. I remember chafing at Vice President George H. W. Bush’s condescension. Objecting to Ferraro’s assertion that she would do away with all covert (military or intelligence) actions, Bush snidely offered to teach her the basics. “Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon….”

Ferraro didn’t let him get away with that. “I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy….”


But Bush hadn’t finished. The day after the debate, he gloated to a group of macho longshoremen, “we tried to kick a little ass last night.” The consensus was that the candidates finished evenly, no mean feat for three-term congresswoman Ferraro, given the enormous disparity between the resumés of the two candidates.

She also had to parry the impertinent questions of male reporters, like, “Are you tough enough to press the button?”— questions they would never have thought to ask a man. (I believe that memory is what lay behind presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s 3-a.m.-phone-call ad.)

While Ferraro was campaigning in 1984, I was in grad school, breaking with my mother’s generation as I struggled to balance the needs of children, home and husband with my own need to slake my craving for scholarly inquiry. Women of my mother’s generation worked only if they had to; they certainly didn’t commute out of town several days a week in pursuit of a Ph.D. I was pushing against my own glass ceiling, feeling somewhat awkward among my colleagues, most of whom were just a few years older than my children. Since I didn’t see them, I didn’t think there was anyone else in my position. But watching Ferraro run the gauntlet against the provocative challenges from reporters and political opponents, I began to appreciate that women always faced trials that men didn’t. Though our circumstances were quite different, in that I was studying and Ferraro was running for national office, I saw that she too had returned to the thing that she loved before her children were full grown and out of the house. Her achievements encouraged me and many other American women: We were getting there!

Asked in 2007 how she would like to be remembered, Ferraro gave three answers. First, “I want to be remembered as a mother and a wife who really believed in the sanctity of the family.” Yet despite her Roman Catholic faith and her personal aversion to abortion, Ferraro staunchly supported a woman’s right to choose. Publicly defying the archbishop of New York, Ferraro persevered in her conviction that “as a public official, I should not impose my views on others.”

She wanted to be remembered as a good daughter, because she was very close to her mother, who was widowed when Geraldine was eight years old. “I always felt bad that her entire life was focused on me and my brother.” Having had to leave school after eighth grade to help support her younger brothers and sisters, the elder Mrs. Ferraro knew the value of education and impressed it upon her children. Her daughter kept her maiden name professionally because “it was [my mother’s] degree as much as mine.”

And lastly, Geraldine Ferraro wanted “to be remembered as somebody who went into office and made a difference.” Rest assured, Gerry. You certainly did.

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