Monday, March 28, 2011

Geraldine Ferraro's Legacy

(photo credit)

Former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro passed away over the weekend after a long battle with blood cancer. She is best remembered as Walter Mondale’s running mate in his unsuccessful 1984 Presidential campaign. At the time, her bid for Vice-President was heralded as a watershed moment in Women’s history. NPR Reporter Cokie Roberts, who was covering the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco that year, recalled the scene:

"Oh, it was incredible. You know, it swept through San Francisco the night before, maybe two days before, that she was going to be the pick. And there was a tremendous amount of excitement among the women particularly that there was actually going to be a female on the ticket. And then when she came into the convention hall to make her speech, this tiny figure in white up there on the podium, the women in the room really were just undone with excitement and emotion, many people in tears. And I do confess that I went over to a colleague from ABC who was covering the campaign and squeezed her hand. We had been college dorm mates and even though we were covering it and dispassionate on air, it was a moment - it was a moment in women's history."

For many women, Ferraro’s nomination represented a push against the political glass ceiling that had largely kept women out of national politics. “She was a champion for women and children and for the idea that there should be no limits on what every American can achieve," Bill and Hillary Clinton said in their statement on her passing, “She paved the way for a generation of female leaders and put the first cracks in America's political glass ceiling.” However, Ms. Ferraro was not immune from feeling the glass ceiling push back. She reflected on her experiences on the campaign trail as a trial of her political capabilities as a woman and not merely as a candidate:

"My biggest challenge in the '84 campaign was doing the job so that I didn't let down women. In many instances because I was the first there were people looking at me and saying, 'I just hope she's able to handle it,' because if I failed, they would fail. It's a lot of pressure. It's pressure that they don't put on a man, obviously. I mean, look at Dan Quayle. If that had been a woman who had either made his mistakes in the campaign or during the four years of the vice presidency, it would have been a disaster. So the pressure is really quite acute, until we get enough women doing the job. It's just a matter of getting the people in there making their voices heard."

Ms. Ferraro’s trailblazing work, despite its laudability, was not enough to clear the political path for Mrs. Clinton twenty-four year later during her 2008 run for President. Even as female representation grew in Congress over the intervening two and a half decades between their respective campaigns, Ms. Ferraro’s observation that “until we get enough women doing the job [in Congress]” the pressure of being a female candidate above all else will continue to predominate political discourse and the way that Americans understand women as politicians. Hopefully, Ms. Ferraro’s lasting contribution to American politics will be that she was one of the first of many women to push against the glass ceiling until there are enough women “doing the job” that they cease to be female candidates and are instead simply candidates in the eyes of Americans.

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