Gail Sheehy: Remembering Geraldine Ferarro

The late Geraldine Ferraro

The first female candidate for vice president forged a national passage that has been followed and broadened by American women in every field

I will never forget the thrill of that night in 1984 when I called my teenage daughter from San Francisco about Geraldine Ferraro. “She’s going to get it.”

“Oooh, Mom,” she gasped. “It’s more thrilling than Princess Di’s wedding.”

Tens of thousands of women called their daughters on that crowning night of the Democratic convention. Hundreds of male delegates turned over their passes to women delegates so they could bring their daughters onto the convention floor for the great moment. Tiny girls, some only four or five, sat with eyes luminous as mirrors and stared up at the lady in the white suit who  was trying not to let her tears of joy spill. Those little girls knew this was something that had never happened before. A lady like their moms was sharing a national platform with a man who wanted her to be his vice president.

I had written the first column predicting that“This Queens Housewife Will Be America’s First Female Vice-Presidential Candidate.” She combined a conservative personal image – daughter of proud Italian immigrants and Catholic mother of three — who was also unapologetically pro-choice.

She wore cool designer glasses and had great hair long before Sarah Palin. And Gerry had no hesitation about speaking up for equality for women and girls. She even took on then-Vice President George H. W. Bush over accusations of sexism and class warfare. His wife, Barbara Bush, revealed her nasty side by likening Ferraro to a “bitch.”

Ferraro wrote the earliest scripts from which Hillary Clinton took note and began nursing her own national political ambitions. In 1984, Hillary was then the workadaddy of the Clinton marriage, breadwinner in a southern law firm supporting the national political hopes of her husband,  then governor of Arkansas.

Her ticket didn’t win, but she exploded for all times the stereotyped image of “Queens housewife,” and opened a national passage that has been followed and broadened by American women in every field. All over the country women back then were attempting to forge working partnerships with men, from the shop floor to the police squad car to executive corridors. Women who long before had stopped arguing politics with their husbands were struggling, mostly in isolation, to surmount the prejudices of their own social conditioning, rise above dumb jokes about gender, and deal with jealous unemployed mates at home while they got the job done. Now, at last, they had a leadership model at the highest level—a national leadership pair.

“She was everything that now commentators will say — an icon, a legend,” Clinton said on NBC’s Meet the Press.”She went before many women to a political height that is very, very difficult still, and she navigated it with great grace and grit. And I think we owe her a lot.”

It is well to remember how long it takes to break down gender stereotypes. It wasn’t boomer women who  were the trailblazers of the women’s movement. It was the women of the generation before them, the so-called Silent Generation, who broke out of the conformity of their 1950s girlhoods and took hostile fire in the early days of feminism but stuck to their guns: women like Nancy Pelosi and Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug, all women of the House when most Americans still believed their rightful place was in the home.

Like most women in those days, she got her political start as the scrappy neighborhood voice on  a very local issue. When a rich developer wanted to erect a building that would block her neighborhood’s sun, Gerry hired a local lawyer named Mario Cuomo to represent her opposition group. The future New York governor became the mentor who championed her ambitions.

“She was very intelligent, lively. Open. Very generous,” recalls Mr. Cuomo, who encouraged Ms. Ferraro to run for Congress in the late 1970s. “In a fight, she’s the one you’d want on your side.”

Editor’s Note: Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appears in USA Today

3 comments so far.

  1. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Geraldine Ferraro was a path breaker for women in American politics. She endured many slurs for daring to stand up to give voice to the women in our country. I don’t think that her sacrifices will ever be completely understood. Those in power against her tried to destroy her and her family. Through it all she was dignified, articulate and fair. She would have made a great vice president or president for that matter.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      She was dignified which is more than anyone can say about Barbara Bush who revealed a side of herself that people still don’t want to see. 

  2. avatar Rho says:

    She was a pioneer, may she rest in peace.