The utter excitement I felt when Walter Mondale selected her as his running mate was beyond words for me. Yet, it’s still amazing to me that even in 1984–that infamous year–having a woman running mate wasn’t just a novelty, it was a first. She maintained her dignity through all the sexist hoopla, the nasty political cartoons that lampooned her gender, the bogus campaign slogan “Fritz and Tits,” and she was an excellent campaigner. I wasn’t as excited about Mondale as I was about Ferraro, but I thought at last we have our foot in the door at the highest levels of politics.
I was furious with Barbara Bush–frankly, I’ve never been an admirer–during her interview with Connie Chung. The whole tenor of the interview was an unspoken “how dare this woman challenge my husband.” When asked what she thought of Ferraro, the first woman on a Presidential slate, Bush could have, should have said, “What a tremendous step forward for women!” What she actually said was, “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” Bush insisted she meant witch, not bitch, but I think we know exactly which she meant. To her credit Bush indicated years later that she had apologized to Ferraro about the remark.
Ferraro had a life of public service, starting as a teacher. After becoming a lawyer, she was an assistant District Attorney in New York. She created a special victims unit that handled cases involving crimes against children and the elderly as well as sexual abuse and domestic violence cases. First elected to Congress in 1978, she rose quickly in the Democratic party and earned the reputation of being an outspoken critic of Reagonomics. Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment was something for which she fought tirelessly, even in the face of obvious defeat. She had hope before it became pop culture.
Ferraro brought energy to that 1984 campaign, but she and Mondale were up against the incumbents Reagan and Bush. However, she treated every speech and every event as if she and Fritz Mondale had a chance. In probably the sleaziest act in that campaign, when her opponents’ party didn’t want to attack her head on and appear sexist, they went at her through her husband’s financial affairs. (It turns out he did have some shady business dealings, namely fraudulently obtaining financing for a real estate venture. He pled guilty and served 150 hours of community service. A later indictment and trial for bribery resulted in acquittal.)
After that campaign Ferraro brought her energy and drive to journalism and other issues, especially human rights. She tried twice to become a senator from New York. One race was dogged again by questions about her husband’s finances, and she lost by a narrow margin. On another occasion she lost in the primaries for the nomination. Speculation was that she had stayed away from politics too long, but that was when politics in this country started to become particularly nasty. I think she was too good a person to lower herself to that kind of mud. In 2008, she was a Hillary Clinton supporter and advisor, but when she pointed out that America could accept an African-American President more than a woman President, charges of racism arose. As with many things, her remarks were taken out of context, but it cost her a place in Clinton’s campaign and the vast contributions she could have made to the Obama Administration.
Geraldine Ferraro was intelligent, dedicated, and did not suffer fools lightly. She was a woman I admired greatly, and I had the privilege of attending several functions where she was the speaker. I will never forget her sense of humor, her outrage at injustice, and her steadfast support of her ideals. This is a loss to all Americans, but especially to us “first generation” of political feminists who saw in her possible election such hope for the future, a future not yet fulfilled.
And a note to the half-governor of Alaska: You did not stand on her shoulders. She wouldn’t have let you. She would have taken you aside and pointed out just what your failings are; namely, you’re no Geraldine Ferraro and never will be.