Geraldine Ferraro (1935–2011) became the first woman nominated for national office by a major political party when Presidential nominee Walter Mondale announced her selection as his running mate in 1984. “Geraldine Ferraro has made her way in this male preserve by being both feminine and feminist,” wrote Evan Thomas in a TIME magazine profile of the groundbreaking candidate. “Her hair is frosted blonde, she wears stockings and makeup, and she loves to shop. When she needs to, she can flirt. But she is also tough and resilient, a shrewd back-room operator.” Although a trained lawyer, Ferraro often referred to herself as “a housewife from Queens,” but did not shy away from asserting that she could indeed lead the nation.
“Taking a man’s place”
Ferraro’s early experiences shaped her career profoundly. Born to Italian immigrant parents in Newburgh, NY, by the time Ferraro was eight years old she had lost two brothers and her father. Her widowed mother worked as a seamstress in the Bronx to support her family. Ferraro skipped several grades in high school and earned a scholarship to Marymount College, where she formed an ambition to become a journalist. However, her mother encouraged her to become a teacher, for the sake of a stable salary.
While teaching, Ferraro attended night classes at Fordham Law School, and later indignantly recalled that upon submitting her application, an admissions officer told her that she was “taking a man’s place.” She earned her degree in 1960 and married real-estate broker John Zaccaro a week later, electing to keep her name as a tribute to her mother. The couple had three children, whom Ferraro raised while practicing law part-time. In 1974, she began working as a prosecutor in the Queens district attorney’s office, where she investigated cases of sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence.
“A Tough Democrat”
Ferraro’s stint in the special victims bureau reinforced her commitment to feminism and shifted her politics leftward, while giving her solid law-and-order credentials. This was crucial to her electoral success in the conservative Ninth Congressional District of Queens, a heavily Italian- and Irish-American working-class enclave known as “Archie Bunker’s district” (a reference to the main character in the popular sitcom All in the Family). Fully aware that her constituents were in the midst of a tectonic shift from the Democratic to the Republican Party, Ferraro used the slogan “Finally, A Tough Democrat” during her successful 1978 Congressional campaign.
Once in office, Ferraro hammered President Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, calling them “absolutely devastating” for women. “This Administration has tried to create the impression that good wives and outstanding mothers are only those who stay at home,” she said. “I don’t disparage that, I did it myself. But not every woman can afford to do that.”
During her three terms in Congress, Ferraro advanced rapidly through the Democratic ranks. Her close cooperation with the party leadership brought her the support of the powerful House Speaker, Tip O’Neill. In short order she was elected secretary of the Democratic caucus, appointed to the House Budget Committee, and finally served as the high-profile chair of the Democratic platform committee.
However, Ferraro broke with her party in some respects. She voted against busing as a way to desegregate schools, which she attempted to justify by arguing that she represented a district that was less than three percent African American. She also supported the death penalty. As her national profile rose, other members of the Democratic coalition criticized these positions sharply.
“A Spark Plug for the Democratic Party”
With Walter Mondale’s faltering campaign (which journalist Lance Morrow likened to “a large heavy suitcase being tumbled, in slow motion, down an interminable flight of stairs”) in need of a jolt of enthusiasm after a bruising primary season, he began to consider adding a woman to the ticket — a consideration given greater emphasis when the National Organization for Women (NOW) seemed to threaten a floor fight at the Democratic Convention if a woman did not receive the vice-presidential slot. Ferraro led Mondale’s short list, which also included Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco. Ultimately, Mondale selected Ferraro, arguing that she exemplified “family virtues” and personified “the classic American dream.”
Ferraro joined Mondale at the Minnesota State House for the announcement on Thursday, July 12, 1984. Photos of the event appeared on the cover of every major newspaper in the United States the following day, as well as The Guardian in Britain. Reporters noted the “bright red dress and simple string of pearls” worn by the groundbreaking Vice Presidential candidate (who later recalled worrying about her short sleeves and resolving to raise her arm but not wave, lest her upper arms appear jiggly) before diving into a flurry of speculation about the pros and cons of the selection.
Democrats hoped to widen the partisan gender gap: a poll taken at the time of Ferraro’s selection indicated that women supported Mondale-Ferraro over Reagan-Bush 49 percent to 41 percent. Yet some fretted over Ferraro’s lack of foreign-policy experience and her “tendency to shoot from the lip.” In contrast, the Republican campaign latched onto polls that indicated 60% of respondents thought Mondale had made his choice under pressure from women’s groups, saying that Ferraro was chosen because of tokenism or “cynical symbolism” rather than her professional merits. In response, Democratic National Committee political director Ann Lewis retorted, “Your token is my pioneer.”
The Mondale-Ferraro ticket was a long shot at best — at the time of the Vice-Presidential selection, Mondale was polling sixteen points behind the popular incumbent Ronald Reagan — but the campaign was also swamped by questions surrounding Ferraro’s husband and their family finances. Allegations of illegal campaign contributions, tax irregularities, conflicts of interest, and falsified mortgage documents piled up in the press. Ferraro also faced scrutiny for her stance on women’s issues, with some opponents arguing that her selection proved that “Mondale caved in to threats and pressures from pro-abortion, pro-lesbian, militant feminists.” In contrast, her advocates celebrated her support for equal pay and pro-choice position.
Nevertheless, in November the Democratic ticket captured only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, a historic defeat. However, in the words of Ann Richards, then the state treasurer of Texas, Ferraro’s candidacy remained a notable political watershed: “The first thing I thought of was not winning, in the political sense, but of my two daughters. To think of the numbers of young women who can now aspire to anything!”
– Jeanne Gutierrez, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Democratic National Committee, “Brightest Star on the Horizon” campaign poster, 1984. Maloney Library, Fordham University School of Law (detail).