The year was 1984. The place was San Francisco at the Moscone Convention Center for the Democratic National Convention. The excitement was palpable. History was about to be made. Walter Mondale, after interviewing several possible candidates, chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in the 1984 presidential campaign.
Gerry, as she was known, made history by becoming the first woman on a major party ticket in a presidential election.
And I got to meet her!
Gerry did not have it easy as the child of Italian immigrants growing up in New York City. When she was only eight years old her father died, leaving her mom to raise her and her brother. In high school, not surprisingly, she was voted “most likely to succeed.” When she finished high school, her uncle said, “Why send her to college? She’s pretty. She’ll get married.” Her mother said, “No way. She’s getting a full education.”
When she completed college, she became the first person in her family to earn a college degree. First, she went to work as a school teacher teaching second grade. However, she wanted more. She started to go to law school at night and, only four years later, while working full time, getting married and starting her own family, she earned her law degree. She was one of two women out of a class of 179 people.
Community work and legal advising
As a lawyer, she did a lot of community work and legal advising. However, soon she was appointed to be an Assistant District Attorney in her Queens borough of New York City. She was appointed by her cousin, which quickly brought about complaints of nepotism. However, she quickly dispelled these complaints by being a star in her activities in her job, defending women in family court and other similar work.
She rose quickly through the ranks and was appointed the head of the Special Victims Unit in charge of domestic violence, spousal abuse, child abuse, and rape. This took a toll on her and she then decided that instead of being, as I call, the ambulance arriving at the scene of the crash, she wanted to start to help build the guardrail instead. She wanted to be involved in ways that would help prevent the situations that she was having to help with in court.
This began her life in the public eye in politics. In 1978 she first ran for Congress and won in the “Archie Bunker District” of Queens. She campaigned on the slogan, “Finally, a tough Democrat”.
While she was in the House of Representatives, she worked in 1980 on the Carter Mondale campaign as Deputy Chair and was reelected as a congresswoman again in 1980 and 1982.
In 1984 came the momentous occasion of being chosen by Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale as his running mate. She was a very exciting choice at that time. and hopes were that it would address the “gender gap” that the polls showed with regard to Reagan and his policies. On many policies and actions that Reagan took, women disagreed more (with Reagan) than men did. Mondale hoped to be able to unseat the very popular President Reagan by bringing in the exciting choice of Geraldine Ferraro. No sooner was she officially nominated when then the political attacks began.
The first had to do with her finances. This is something you don’t see regarding male candidates. The media called for her husband to release his tax returns as well as her releasing hers. Initially, she declined this request saying that this is not something that a male political candidate would be asked to do.
However, she eventually, in the interest of full disclosure and wanting to put the allegations of misconduct to rest, her husband did disclose his finances. All concerns were addressed and put to rest, but the political damage had been done. Gerry campaigned harder than anyone else in that election cycle. She traveled more than Walter Mondale did, back and forth across the country. She traveled more than Reagan and George H. W. Bush combined.
Dr. Liz meets Gerry
During the campaign, I was embarking on my junior year at Cornell University. I was so excited to be part of the Mondale/Ferraro campaign. During my time at Cornell, I was one of the organizers of the Cornell Women’s Center. When we had our information table in the student union building, someone said to me, “Hey Elizabeth, this person doesn’t think the equal rights amendment should be passed!” I would say, “Whaaaaat?!?” I would drop whatever I was doing, come running over, and argue with this person. I can safely say I have considerably mellowed out politically since then, but I remember those times very fondly.
One of the most exciting moments of the campaign was when Gerry came to the Cornell campus. Some of the faculty from the Women’s Studies Department hosted Gerry for a reception and I got to meet her (and stand right next to her for this photo)! It was very exciting!
Another fun moment during the campaign was on a rainy October Thursday afternoon when someone said to me, “There’s a bus leaving for Buffalo for a Mondale Ferraro rally. Want to go?” To which I said, “Absolutely!” I dropped whatever I was doing then also, jumped on a bus for three hours, and went to a very fun and exhilarating campaign rally.
You know the outcome. You know that Mondale and Ferraro did not win. In fact, they lost by a landslide. Reagan/Bush won in every state except Minnesota, which was Walter Mondale’s home state, and the District of Columbia. I am proud to say that Mondale/Ferraro also won in our little county in upstate New York, where Cornell University is located, due to our hard work on this historic campaign.
Gerry went on to run for Senate twice. Her first senate campaign in 1991 failed to get her elected by a less than 1% margin behind the front runner. In 1998 she ran for the Senate again against Chuck Schumer who outspent her five to one and won the primary race. Gerry endorsed him in the November 1998 election that got him into office, which he has held to this day.
At the end of that Senate race, Gerry felt more tired than usual. She got diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. She was given three to five years to live. (By the way, I hate when doctors do that.)
She did not reveal her diagnosis publicly until three years later when she attended congressional hearings in support of an education Act to promote awareness of blood cancers. She defied her prognosis and went on to work in 2008 for Hillary Clinton in her campaign in the primary against Obama.
Gerry was very upset when her daughter voted for Obama in the primary. Her physician daughter told her, “I’m inspired by Obama.” Gerry replied sharply to this, “What does he inspire you to do? Leave your family and work, and go off with Doctors Without Borders?” This was a clear generational divide. Feminism in the U.S. did its job so well that the odds Gerry had faced were considered to no longer even be an issue by younger American women. Younger women did not feel they owed their vote to a woman just for being a woman.
It was only one generation earlier that celebrated the enormity of the step forward that Gerry paved the way for in 1984.
In 2010 Gerry and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by renewing their vows in the New York City church where they had gotten married. A year later in March of 2011, Gerry had bone pain due to a fracture and was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital. While she was there, she was also diagnosed with pneumonia.
In March 2011, Geraldine Ferraro died at the age of 75, surrounded by her husband and her three kids. At her funeral mass, also held at that same church in New York, many people honored her and spoke, including Walter Mondale.
Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton also spoke at her funeral mass. The Clintons said in a statement that “Gerry Ferraro was one of a kind. Tough, brilliant, and never afraid to speak her mind or stand up for what she believed in. A New York icon and a true American original.”
Geraldine Ferraro helped pave the way for women in politics in the United States.
Maya Angelou said, “If you can see it, you can be it.” With the women we are now seeing entering the election process, even more girls and young women may be inspired to hold offices that will allow them to make a difference in our government, in our society and in our world.
Happy Women’s History Month! Who are your heroines in Women’s History? Comment below!