She was a New Yorker, of course, of the only-in kind, a feisty, confident woman who had no problem telling a vice president of the United States where to stick it. Geraldine Ferraro was a formidable woman and a historic political figure who won a victory a generation ago for every American woman who has ever been condescended to by a powerful male.
Ferraro, who died at the age of 75 last week after a long battle with cancer, was the first woman nominated to a major party’s national ticket. She was a three-term U.S. representative from Queens in 1984 when Walter Mondale tapped her as his running mate for his doomed campaign to unseat Ronald Reagan as president. She started the campaign as an unknown. By the time it was over, she was among the most famous women in the world.
Her nomination marked her as yet another political pioneer from New York, joining the likes of Al Smith, the first Catholic to head a national ticket; Frances Perkins, the first women cabinet member; Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to seek a major-party presidential nomination; and Oscar Straus, the first Jewish cabinet member. Like those other historic figures, Geraldine Ferraro knew what it was like to be treated as a threat to the established order, to the accepted way of doing things.
Her counterpart in 1984 was George H.W. Bush, the incumbent vice president and a country-club Republican if ever there was one. During their debate on national television, Mr. Bush took on the role of male chauvinist twit during an exchange about, what else, the Middle East. “Let me help you with the difference, Ms. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.” He then went on to make some point so important and urgent that it has been lost to memory.
When it was her turn to rebut, the congresswoman from Queens spoke words that millions of American women must have cheered. “Let me say first of all that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude, that you have to teach me about foreign policy.” Young people today probably cannot imagine a male politician speaking in such a way to a female counterpart on national television. That’s part of Geraldine Ferraro’s legacy.
She and Mr. Mondale lost, of course, in 1984, and she never was able to capture the magic of that year in her subsequent runs for U.S. Senate. Still, she earned a place in history, and a place in our collective memory. Not many politicians can make such a claim.