Geraldine Ferraro was a ground-breaking American politician who never forgot her working-class, Italian-immigrant roots. And as the first woman nominated as vice president on a major party ticket, Ms. Ferraro was an inspiration to many women no matter what their political inclinations.
Ferraro, who passed on Saturday, was a Democrat through and through, working especially hard for women’s rights in the workplace.
When Walter Mondale picked her to be his running mate in the 1984 election, they faced a very steep uphill battle against incumbents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and in fact they lost badly – winning only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
But despite their defeat, Ferraro saw the positive impact her effort had made. “Every time a woman runs, women win,” she said.
Ferraro’s father died when she was just eight years old, leaving her mother to work in New York’s garment industry in order to support the family.
Ferraro was the first woman in her family to graduate from college, and after working as a public grade school teacher she went to law school – attending classes at night while continuing to teach second grade.
She went on to become Assistant District Attorney for Queens County, New York, specializing in child abuse and domestic violence.
A House seat in Archie Bunker’s district
She first ran for Congress in 1978, in the Queens district where the popular TV show “All in the Family” and its antihero Archie Bunker was set. She labeled herself “a small ‘c’ conservative,” running with the slogan “Finally, A Tough Democrat.” She won reelection handily in 1980 and 1982.
In later years, Ferraro lost two bids for the US Senate nomination. She also served on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and she worked as a television political commentator and co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire.” She worked for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election.
As news of Ferraro’s passing spread, those who knew her – Republicans and Democrats alike – remembered the qualities and achievements that made her unique.
“Geraldine will forever be remembered as a trailblazer who broke down barriers for women, and Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life,” President Obama said in a statement. “Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live.”
“Though we were one-time political opponents, I am happy to say Gerry and I became friends in time – a friendship marked by respect and affection,” said former president George H. W. Bush. “I admired Gerry in many ways, not the least of which was the dignified and principled manner she blazed new trails for women in politics.”
“She inspired women across the country to reach their own greatness as they strengthened our country,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Her service in the House is a source of pride to all of us in Congress.”
Sarah Palin, who became the second woman to be nominated as vice president by a major political party, got to know Ferraro during last year’s elections.
“When I had the honor of working alongside Geraldine on election night last year, we both discussed the role of women in politics and our excited expectation that someday that final glass ceiling would be shattered by the election of a woman president,” the former Alaska governor, who ran as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, wrote on Facebook. “She was an amazing woman who dedicated her life to public service as a teacher, prosecutor, Congresswoman, and Vice Presidential candidate. She broke one huge barrier and then went on to break many more.”
Praise from a former Republican Speaker
“We came to Congress at the same time and I had great admiration when she was when picked to be the first woman Vice Presidential candidate for a major party,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “She was a very smart, very hardworking, wonderful person with a deep love for her family and for America.”
Those who broke political ground with Ferraro were especially touched by her passing.
“I came to Congress two years before Gerry,” remembers Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland. “There were only 17 women in Congress at the time – women like Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Holtzman. We became friends. We were the early birds. We weren’t afraid to ruffle feathers.”
Today, there are 76 women in the US House of Representatives and 17 women in the US Senate.
In her nomination acceptance speech in 1984, Ferraro sent a strong message to future generations:
“By choosing a woman to run for our nation’s second highest office, you sent a powerful signal to all Americans. There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement. If we can do this, we can do anything.”