“If we can do this, we can do anything.” –Geraldine Ferraro, accepting the Democratic Party nomination for vice president in 1984
Geraldine Ferraro’s place in history is assured. The smart mouthed tough talking Queens Congresswoman tapped to be Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate shattered a particularly stubborn glass ceiling. As I mourned her passing following a valiant 12-year battle with multiple myeloma, I found myself watching her acceptance speech again, not with nostalgia but with celebration, appreciation—and a sense of urgency for the next generation of progressive women political leaders to step forward and continue her legacy.
In her speech, Ferraro told her American dream story–Italian immigrant father, widowed mother who worked long hours crocheting beads onto wedding dresses to give her children a better life—with the same rhetorical flourishes beloved by male candidates. But when she followed her opening salvo with a spontaneous “Whoop!” the cameras panned moist eyes of cheering, placard-waving women in the convention crowd.
Her not-so-subliminal message came through loud and clear. Though women had lost the ERA ratification battle just two years prior, our efforts to gain equality for women had won this significant consolation prize: the first woman vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket.
I was tearing up at home in Phoenix, where I would soon have a chance to meet Ferraro at a packed fundraising event in a friend’s backyard. And so it went all around the country. She Negotiates founder Victoria Pynchon recalled why her tears flowed as she watched the convention from Sacramento CA:
Here I was. A practicing commercial litigator. And there Ferraro was. A Vice-Presidential candidate. It was exhilarating. Women were becoming a central part of the American story. That meant I was a part of it too. I hadn’t dreamed too big as my mother had warned me I had.
Carolyn Maloney, now the U. S. Congresswoman from Manhattan’s 14th district, was “an eager young delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention.” She said of witnessing Ferraro’s nomination, “It was absolutely electrifying. She changed my life and she changed the course of history.”
Done in by her men: The Mondale-Ferraro defeat
The euphoria didn’t last long. Ferraro had the audacity to think she would be treated as a person separate from her husband. She acknowledged later that she had been ill-prepared for the sexist media treatment she would encounter. “The promise of our country is that the rules are fair,” she had opined in her speech. So when the Republicans went after her because her husband hadn’t released his tax returns after she had promised he would, she quipped, “You know those Italian men,” and thought that would take care of it. Instead it unleashed a flood of additional attacks on her qualifications; that threw her onto the defensive for the rest of the campaign.
Many would try to blame her rather than her presidential candidate running mate, the solid statesman but uber-boring Walter Mondale, for Ronald “morning in America” Reagan’s landslide victory that November. While it’s doubtful that anyone could have defeated the personable (and popular despite his reactionary economic and anti-woman social issue positions) incumbent, Mondale clearly wasn’t up to the task.
Not one to give up, Ferraro, later ran for U.S, Senate twice, in 1992 and 1998. She lost both races. She served in the Clinton Administration as ambassador to the U.N.Human Rights Commission. Late in 1998 she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Determined to keep working even through chemotherapy treatments, she did business consulting and media commentary, and campaigned hard for Hillary Clinton in 2008. I often saw her at political gatherings but my last encounter with her was at an informal dinner at a friend’s home where her passion for making a difference through the political process came through as strong as ever in the heated conversations about the race that was by that time a shoe-in for Barack Obama.
In this video interview for the New York Times, Ferraro looks back at the ups and downs of her life and what her groundbreaking accomplishments have meant for society.
Coincidentally, the day Ferraro died, a vigorous conversation was occurring on the 9 Ways blog about whether it’s incumbent on women to support women candidates. The consensus was that women have a responsibility to support those female candidates who support policies that advance women and women’s equality.
No question, Ferraro fit that description.
Today, I join millions of Americans in saying, “Thank you, Gerry, for standing in your power and walking with intention toward a better, and someday an unlimited future for women.“
“If we can do this, we can do anything,” just as she said. But here’s the urgency: we will do so only if we women make a conscious, concerted decision to walk through the doors that Geraldine Ferraro’s courageous bid for the vice presidency pushed open for us. That would be the best, most fitting tribute of all.