As Senator Kamala Harris prepares for the upcoming vice-presidential debate with Vice President Mike Pence, our minds turn to other women who have vied for the Veep spot. The Center for Women’s History special installation, What Women Can Do for America: Geraldine Ferraro and the 1984 Presidential Campaign, explores the story of one of these women. Almost 40 years ago, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for national office by a major political party when Democratic nominee Walter Mondale announced her selection as his running mate. At the time, Ferraro was one of 24 women serving in Congress. Today there are 131 women, including Harris.
Like Harris, Ferraro trained as a lawyer and worked as a prosecutor before serving in Congress. Harris served as district attorney of San Francisco before becoming attorney general of California. Ferraro was an assistant district attorney in Queens and helped create a Special Victims Bureau to focus on sexual crimes and child and elder abuse. A moderate Democrat who represented a more conservative district in Queens, Ferraro supported equal pay, the Equal Rights Amendment, and an end to the nuclear arms race while also championing local concerns like support for the elderly, neighborhood preservation, and a ban on busing for school desegregation.
Despite being a successful teacher, lawyer, and congresswoman, Ferraro often referred to herself as “a housewife from Queens.” This self-description likely influenced her clothing and accessories choice for the announcement of her historic candidacy. The day after Mondale’s announcement, images of Ferraro in her red dress and pearls appeared in every major newspaper in the United States. The installation features Ferraro’s iconic dress alongside contemporary news coverage and campaign ephemera.
Contemporary news coverage highlighted the historic nature of Ferraro’s run, even as journalists and pundits struggled to cover a female politician. Although Ferraro and her husband John Zaccaro had both kept their names and she preferred to be addressed as “Ms.,” newspapers often referred to her as “Mrs. Ferraro” or “Miss Ferraro.” (The New York Times would not use “Ms.” until 1986.) Ferraro also faced scrutiny for her clothes and hair and her husband’s finances. Articles questioned whether America was “ready” for a woman vice president, a persistent refrain that has followed women in politics vying for executive office to this day.
In October 1984, Ferraro faced Vice President George H.W. Bush on the debate stage. That week, Bush’s press secretary described Ferraro as “too bitchy. She’s very arrogant. Humility isn’t one of her strong points,” a critique echoed by Second Lady Barbara Bush, who later apologized. During the debate, Ferraro forcefully met Bush’s attempt to portray her as inexperienced on foreign policy stating, “I almost resent Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy. I’ve been a member of Congress for six years.”
The Mondale campaign was already behind before Ferraro came on board, and even the enthusiasm of those excited at the prospect of a female vice president couldn’t overcome the Reagan–Bush incumbent team. But Ferraro’s candidacy remains a turning point in presidential politics and for the women who have followed in her footsteps.
Written by Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History