Geraldine Ferraro, former congresswoman from Queens, made history in 1984 as she walked up to the podium at the Democratic National Convention and accepted her party’s nomination for Vice President alongside Walter F. Mondale’s bid for president. It might be difficult to remember now with other women’s nominations for national office behind us, but Ms. Ferraro’s acceptance was the first serious attempt of a woman to gain a prominent spot in the national political world of the United States. More simply put, she was the first woman nominated for national office by a major party in the US. Ms. Ferraro died this past Saturday in Boston from complications from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood which she had been fighting for the past 12 years.
Back in 1984 Ann Richards was the Texas state treasure who went on to become Texas governor commented that, the first thing I thought of was not winning in the political sense, but of my two daughters.”
“To think” Ms. Richards added, “of the numbers of young women who can now aspire to anything.”
President Obama issued a statement on Saturday in praise of Ms. Ferraro: “Geraldine will forever be remembered as a trailblazer who broke down barriers for women and Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life.”
Part of Ferraro’s appeal came from her down-to-earth background. It was easy to see her as a real mom, making peanut butter sandwiches for her children. She was loved for staying home until her kids reached school age, and then began working in a Queens district attorney’s office which her cousin ran.
Ms. Ferraro’s political positions spanned the gamut from liberal to conservative: she supported the Equal Rights Amendment for women as well as a nuclear freeze; but she was also against school busing and was in favor of tax credits for private and parochial school parents. Her slogan when she ran in her first election in 1978 for the House of Representatives from New York’s Ninth Congressional District was “Finally, a Tough Democrat.”
Criticized for Abortion Position
The hot subject of abortion was a thorn in her side, however. As a woman and a Roman Catholic this issue caused her no end of trouble. Her position was that, although personally she would not have an abortion herself, she felt she could not deny others the right to the choice. Opponents of abortion relentlessly criticized her just about everywhere she went in a much more intensive way than they did with men politicians.
Writing for the Washington Post in September, 1984, Mary McGrory quoted a Roman Catholic priest in her piece: “When the nuns in the fifth grade told Geraldine she would have to die for her faith, she didn’t know it would be this way.”
Concerned Mom, Caring Lawyer, Dedicated Politician
Excellent grades earned Ms. Ferraro a scholarship to Marymount College in Tarrytown, NY from which later transferred to the Manhattan branch, commuting there from Queens, where she lived with her mother. After graduating in 1956 she worked as a teacher in a public school in Queens, but later applied to Fordham University Law School. She was told by an admissions officer there that she “might be taking a man’s place.” She was admitted to Fordham’s night school as one of only two women in a class of 179. She received her law degree in 1960, and passed the bar exam on July 14th 1960. She was married to John Zaccaro two days later but kept her maiden name professionally as a way to honor her mother. In 1978 Ms. Ferraro was admitted into the bar of the United States Supreme Court.
She had three children, Donna, John and Laura, and did not work full-time until 1973 when her cousin, Nicholas Ferraro was elected Queens district attorney. She became an assistant district attorney in that office and was in charge of child and wife abuse, crimes against the elderly and rape. Her work there was so distressing, she wrote later, that she developed an ulcer. She also said that the crime-producing conditions of society pushed her towards her more liberal politics.
One evening, before Mario Cuomo became governor of New York, he gave Geraldine and her husband John a ride home from a Bar Mitzvah when Ms. Ferraro mentioned to him that she was considering running for public office. Cuomo suggested that she run for Congress.
In 1978 that is exactly what she did.