Geraldine Ferraro died today at age 75, after battling multiple myeloma for 13 years, far longer than she was expected to survive when diagnosed. She became the first woman named to a major-party national ticket in the U.S. when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate in 1984. Ferraro acknowledged that she would not have been Mondale’s choice for vice president had she been a man. The Democratic nominee was trailing President Ronald Reagan badly in the polls and needed something to shake up the campaign. Ferraro was supposed to turn the emerging "gender gap" in American politics to the Democrats’ favor.
I remember discounting the rumors that a woman might be nominated for vice president. The Reagan years had rapidly developed my cynicism. It was a big deal just to have a woman on the “short list,” so I figured that talking Ferraro was going to be the Mondale camp’s gesture toward women, and we’d have to wait another cycle or two to see a woman on a ticket. But after watching Ferraro’s speech at the national convention, this liberal teenage girl was so excited and inspired that I briefly forgot what I knew about Mondale having no chance to be elected.
Journalists covering the campaign picked Ferraro apart; you can read the gory details in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times obituaries. She wasn’t very experienced in terms of media relations, and she was a strong woman, so she was an easy target. One manufactured controversy after another dominated stories about her campaign, and I remember lots of speculation about her Italian-American husband’s possible mob ties. Meanwhile, media provided scant coverage when Reagan’s Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan was indicted in September 1984, six weeks before the presidential election. You’d think the first-ever indictment of a sitting cabinet secretary would be a bigger news story than some of the garbage being thrown at Ferraro, but you would be wrong. (Donovan was later acquitted.)
Bleeding Heartland readers too young to remember the 1984 campaign may know of Ferraro mainly because in March 2008, she asserted that Barack Obama’s race gave him an advantage in the presidential primaries against Hillary Clinton: “Sexism is a bigger problem [than racism in the United States] […] It’s OK to be sexist in some people’s minds. It’s not OK to be racist.” The ensuing furor prompted Ferraro to resign from Clinton’s presidential campaign fundraising committee, though she stood by her remarks. At the time, I felt many Obama supporters blew Ferraro’s comments way out of proportion. Her perspective was shaped by decades of personal experience with sexism, like law school professors who felt she had taken “a man’s rightful place.”
Representative Bruce Braley said in a statement today, “Geraldine Ferraro was a great leader and a remarkable woman. She not only made history, she inspired generations of women to do the same. She will be greatly missed, but her influence will live on.” I will update this post with further Iowa reaction to Ferraro’s passing.
Share your own memories of Ferraro and her political career in this thread.
UPDATE: Senator Chuck Grassley posted to Twitter, “Geraldine Ferraro was an xtraordinary M of Cong. A person easy get along w. True abt my working w her”
Ferraro’s father died when she was eight years old. Here’s a reflection she wrote on how losing a parent so young affected her life.
LATE UPDATE: Joan Walsh’s reflection on Ferraro’s life and career is worth reading.