Geraldine Ferraro shaped history because she took a chance in the national spotlight. She gave our nation — and me — an important lesson in gender equality at just the right political moment.
Ferraro was the first woman to win a spot on the Democratic party’s presidential ticket when she became Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984.
Ferraro wasn’t the first woman to try for the highest elective offices in the land. Credit also goes to Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 became the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic party presidential nomination. Likewise, Margaret Chase Smith had previously run for the Republican presidential nomination, and dozens of other women had run on minor party tickets.
But if Ferraro wasn’t the first woman to run for national executive branch office, she surely gave a mighty shove to the “glass ceiling” by getting herself on the Democratic ticket. Her candidacy became an important rung in the political ladder for future women candidates. Among those who owe a debt to Geraldine Ferraro are vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and the many women who surely will occupy the Oval Office in my lifetime and that of my children.
That year — 1984 — I was fresh out of college, entering the workforce, and on the look-out for role models. Along came Ferraro, a savvy politician who seemed to take her equality for granted and wore her power with grace. That she was a pro-choice, Italian-American Catholic with children made her seem fearless. That she spoke out for the poor, pay equity and the environment made her seem sympathetic. Best of all, Ferraro wasn’t afraid to talk about traditionally “male” topics and correctly criticized Ronald Reagan’s many nuclear weapon expansion schemes as both foolish and dangerous.
Still, I remember thinking that Ferraro would lose — not because she was a woman, but because she was on a sinking ticket with the noble but bland Walter Mondale (who nonetheless deserves kudos for naming Ferraro as his running mate). It didn’t help that Mondale and Ferraro were up against the charismatic movie actor and incumbent President Ronald Reagan and his vice president George Bush (the elder).
At first, Ferraro’s effective campaigning helped Mondale — who had been flagging by 12 points in the polls before Ferraro helped pull the Democratic ticket into a dead heat with the incumbents. Ferraro was so effective that in the days leading up to the vice presidential debate, Team Bush team called up another woman— Second Lady of the United States Barbara Bush — to blaze an ignoble trail for her husband, which she did by publicly referring to Ferraro as, “…I can’t say it, but it rhymes with 'rich'."
Although Mrs. Bush subsequently issued an apology, the nasty remark only made Ferraro more appealing to me. Like most women of my generation, I recognized the code — a man who is smart and articulate is hailed as leader, a woman with the same skills is mocked as “rhyming with rich.”
A lot of us loved that Ferraro didn’t back down, and in the ensuing debate between Ferraro and Bush, surveys showed that men thought Bush had won, while women credited Ferraro with the victory. Within years, the book, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” became a bestseller.
The Mondale-Ferraro ticket, and ultimately Ferraro’s vice presidential aspirations, collapsed when opponents dug up that she owed back taxes (which she paid) and a public battle erupted over whether Ferraro’s husband would release his tax returns for public scrutiny. Reagan-Bush won re-election in a landslide. Ferraro went on to a distinguished career as a U.N. diplomat, journalist, and public spokesperson.
Most likely, the Mondale and Ferraro ticket never stood a chance. But Ferraro won a huge political point: that women can — must — run for the highest political offices in the land.
Women must run not only to assert our equal humanity but, more importantly, to bring to the our nation’s leadership the wisdom that comes only when every branch of government reflects the full panoply of viewpoints and life experiences. It is a lesson that goes to very core of representational self-government — a government designed to be by and for all people, women and men alike.
Thank you to Geraldine Ferraro for giving our nation an equality lesson of a lifetime.
We're holding a month-long blog symposium on women's rights for Women's History Month. See all the blog posts here, and learn more about women's rights: Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.