The Education of Geraldine Ferraro

In the summer of 1984, the hot, scruffy offices that Ms. magazine occupied in New York City's garment district were abuzz with excitement. Word was that Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate for president, would choose a woman for his running mate. For years, feminists had called for just such a turn of events, with Gloria Steinem at the vanguard. We were about to have our big political moment.

I was a junior staffer at Ms. -- just a year out of college -- and I often stumbled through my days in a cloud of awe and confusion, unversed as I was in feminist theory and literature.

Just days before the election, when things were looking bleak for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, I stood at a packed rally on Seventh Avenue with my colleagues, craning my neck for a glimpse of Ferraro at the podium. The venue was symbolic: In a bid for the votes of labor, the rally took place in the garment district, playing on Ferraro's background as the daughter of a unionized garment worker. The campaign against Ferraro had been particularly brutal, and the polls were not encouraging.

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro's nomination was a thrill for women all over the nation. But for a young feminist from a Catholic family, Ferraro's elevation to the national stage was also a point of cultural and class pride. Like Ferraro's mother, my grandmother had worked as a factory seamstress. She was the first of her family to attend college; my parents earned their degrees as I was growing up.

Ethnic Catholic communities were known for their cohesion. But in the 1980 election, Republicans had managed to cleave a group of Catholics from the traditional Democratic base by playing, in the wake of the social upheavals of the 1960s and '70s, to their cultural conservatism. The new category of voter was dubbed the "Reagan Democrat," and as Reagan made his bid for a second term, the old ethnic and religious allegiances weakened further. Ferraro's rags-to-riches story as the child of Italian immigrants held no guarantee that she would win the support of this voting bloc.

In fact, to Reagan Democrats, the pro-choice, Catholic Ferraro -- a feminist who had kept her birth name after marriage, no less -- was nothing short of a traitor. John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, declared that no Catholic could vote for Ferraro in good conscience because she was pro-choice. At the time, this was a new political tack; countless male politicians had escaped the same condemnation from church leaders. Given this lack of support, perhaps it should be no surprise that from her vice-presidential run, Ferraro's takeaway was that being a woman trumped all other identities.

In 1984, I lived in Weekhawken, a gritty town perched on the palisades at the edge of the Hudson River, in an apartment devised from two unused rooms in the home of an Italian-immigrant family. The first floor was divided between my flat and that of the homeowner, Mr. Facchina; his daughter and her children lived upstairs. I came home one day to find that he had taped a Reagan-Bush poster to his front window. Ms. had just published Gloria Steinem's October cover story on Ferraro, so I tore off the cover and taped it to my window. The next day, Grandpapa took down his poster, and I followed suit, moving the magazine cover to an inside wall. In that truce, I found a satisfying victory.

In my own family, the Ferraro candidacy exacerbated already simmering gender tensions. My parents, for whom watching television together is a ritual, viewed the vice-presidential debate in separate rooms.

It was at that debate that Ferraro proved her mettle. When George H.W. Bush, then running for a second term as Ronald Reagan's No. 2, appeared to talk down to Ferraro on U.S. policy in the Middle East, Ferraro landed a punch: "Let me first of all say that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy." During an October edition of Meet the Press, Marvin Kalb asked, "Ms. Ferraro, could you push the nuclear button?" Ferraro replied that she could do anything "that was necessary to protect the security of this country." A few questions later, Kalb asked if Ferraro thought she would have been selected had she not been a woman. "That's a double-edged sword," she replied. "I don't know if I were not a woman, if I'd be judged in the same way -- asked questions like, 'Are you strong enough to push the button?'"

Even the sedate New York Times struggled with the fundamentals, such as how to address the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Unlike other newspapers, the Times always precedes a person's last name with an honorific, and the paper famously resisted use of the title "Ms." long after others had accepted it. ("Ms." was a title devised by feminists, who argued that if a man's marital status had no place in his name -- after all, "Mr." applied to married and single men alike -- neither should a woman's.) Ferraro, having not taken her husband's last name, posed a problem. She was married, so the Times felt compelled to call her "Mrs. Ferraro," a title better suited to her mother.

Mondale and Ferraro lost to Reagan in a landslide, and there are still men today who blame Ferraro for the loss. But the truth is, Mondale never had a prayer against Reagan, and Ferraro would likely not have been chosen if he had. She was a less than perfect candidate, mostly on account of her husband's questionable business dealings, but she played her part with aplomb, and it remains a stain on the Democratic soul that no woman has since -- in a span of 24 years -- been named for a vice-presidential slot. Although I understand the calculus that likely led the Obama team to conclude that choosing a woman as a running mate perhaps one "first" too many, I believe Obama would have won regardless of the gender of his veep.

I wish my Geraldine Ferraro story could conclude as no more than an appreciation of heroism on behalf of women, especially Catholic women and working-class women. But sometimes you find that when someone represents what you'd like to think of as the best in your community -- in this case, the strong, ambitious, crusading Catholic woman of immigrant stock -- they come with its less laudable attributes. In 2008, Ferraro laid bare the racial resentment that lingers in our common culture.

She was backing Hillary Clinton in her primary race against Barack Obama, who was closing in on the nomination.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," Ferraro told a California newspaper. "And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

The remarks were controversial, and the Obama campaign made great hay of them. Ferraro could have said, "Hey, look, I know how this works -- had I not been a woman at the right place and the right time in 1984, I wouldn't have been the vice-presidential candidate. I'm just observing the dynamics of the times."

But that's not what she did. "Every time that campaign is upset about something, they call it racist," she told The New York Times. "I will not be discriminated against because I'm white. If they think they're going to shut up Geraldine Ferraro with that kind of stuff, they don't know me."

Ferraro's comments seared me because they were the sort of grousing I'd heard all my life, and had once half-believed myself -- that blacks who achieved great things did so because they'd been given some special advantage not available to "hard-working" whites.

For me, the 2008 presidential election was already fraught with a sense of divided loyalty. I still want, with all my heart, to see a woman president in my lifetime. But at a particularly precarious moment in the nation's history, I really saw Barack Obama as the preferable candidate (for reasons that haven't completely panned out, I might add). To hear the venom of racial resentment pour forth from not just a hero but a hero with whom I identified thrust in my face an ugly truth about the tensions that continue to plague progressive politics today.

That said, the legacy of Geraldine Ferraro encompasses much more than those remarks, and far more than the story of a single campaign. She was the first to model for us what a presidential woman could look like and sound like -- how she could spar with male detractors and triumph in the moment. And she offered a way of re-envisioning feminist politics.

Once I was tasked with interviewing Ferraro about a very specific change being proposed to Social Security and had to ask the generic question, "Why is Social Security a woman's issue?"

She replied with the requisite statistics on women's paltry post-retirement income and the numbers of women who would fall into poverty without it. "But you know, Addie, every issue is a women's issue." For Geraldine Ferraro, there was no greater truth.

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