In 1984, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro secured the nomination as the first woman vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket. Representative Ferraro’s pragmatism and political skill, coupled with her close relationships with top Washington Democrats, allowed her rapid climb up the House leadership ladder. While serving in Congress, Ferraro was able to pursue a liberal, feminist agenda without ignoring the concerns of her conservative district or alienating her mostly male colleagues.
The daughter of Italian immigrants Dominick and Antonetta Ferraro, Geraldine Anne Ferraro was born on August 26, 1935, in Newburgh, New York. The youngest child and only girl in the family, Geraldine was born shortly after her older brother Gerald, for whom she was named, died in a car accident.1 Dominick Ferraro died from a heart attack in 1943. Antonetta Ferraro moved her three children to the Bronx, where she worked to send her daughter to Marymount Catholic School in Tarrytown, New York. Geraldine Ferraro excelled in academics, skipping the sixth through eighth grades and graduating early from high school in 1952. She earned a full scholarship to attend Marymount College in New York City, graduating with a B.A. in English in 1956.2 While teaching in New York public schools, Ferraro attended night school at Fordham University and earned her law degree in 1960. On July 16, a week after graduation, she married a real–estate broker, John Zaccaro; however, Ferraro kept her maiden name as a tribute to her mother.3 She practiced law part–time while raising their three children: Donna, John, and Laura.4 In 1974, Ferraro’s cousin, District Attorney Nicholas Ferraro, offered her the position of assistant district attorney in Queens, New York. Geraldine Ferraro was later transferred to the Special Victims Bureau in 1975, where she quickly earned a reputation for her tenacity and talent in the courtroom.5 Ferraro later said her work in the Special Victims Bureau changed her political views from moderate to liberal. Finding the work draining and citing unequal pay at the district attorney’s office, she left in 1978, and set her sights on Congress.6
After serving as the U.S. Representative in a Queens, New York, district for nearly 30 years, Democratic Congressman James Delaney announced his retirement in 1978. An ethnically and financially diverse district, the bulk of the population, however, consisted of white middle–class and blue–collar workers, a setting that inspired Archie Bunker’s neighborhood in the popular television show, All in the Family. Although formerly a bastion for Roosevelt and Kennedy Democrats, the district had become increasingly conservative.7 Labeled a liberal feminist and lacking the support of local Democratic leaders, Ferraro faced long odds when she sought Delaney’s vacant seat.8 Capitalizing on her ethnic background and running on a platform of increased law and order, support for the elderly, and neighborhood preservation, she secured the party nomination with 53 percent of the vote in a three–way battle against Thomas Manton, a city councilman who had the support of the local Democratic leadership, and Patrick Deignan, a popular candidate of Irish descent.9
Ferraro moved on to a heated campaign in the general election against former Republican State Assemblyman Alfred DelliBovi. She quickly went on the offensive, adopting the slogan, “Finally, A Tough Democrat,” when her opponent criticized her decision to send her children to private schools.10 After Ferraro appealed to the national party for help in the close race, Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts pressured the local Democratic leadership to lend their support.11 She ultimately defeated DelliBovi with 54 percent of the vote earning a seat in the 96th Congress (1979–1981). As the first Congresswoman from Queens, she also was re–elected to two subsequent Congresses, winning in 1980 and 1982 with 58 and 78 percent of the vote, respectively.12
One of Ferraro’s greatest challenges in Congress was balancing her own liberal views with the conservative values of her constituents. Especially in her first two terms, she remained mindful of the needs of the citizens in her district. Assigned to the Post Office and Civil Service Committee for the 96th and 97th Congresses (1979–1983), Ferraro earned a spot on the Public Works and Transportation Committee in 1981.13 When appointed to the Select Committee on Aging in 1979, a post she held until 1985, she organized a forum in her district to discuss problems concerning housing, medical aid, and social support systems for the New York elderly.14 In deference to the sentiments in her district, Ferraro voted in favor of some conservative legislation, such as a proposed constitutional amendment banning mandatory busing for school desegregation, tuition tax credits for private schools, and school prayer.15 Early in her career, she supported a strong national defense posture.16 Ferraro later broke from the Democratic Party leadership when she voted against a 1982 tax increase.
Ferraro generally remained loyal to the Democratic agenda, however, voting with her party 78 percent of the time in her first term and following the party line even more closely during her second and third terms.17 She was particularly critical of the Ronald W. Reagan administration’s policies towards women, disdaining what she called the White House’s efforts to glorify the nonworking mother, stating, “I don’t disparage that [being a stay–at–home mom], I did it myself… But not every woman can afford to do that.”18 Ferraro looked after the economic needs of women, sponsoring the Economic Equity Act in 1981. The legislation reformed pension options for women, protecting the rights of widows and divorcées and allowing homemakers to save as much as their working spouses in individual retirement accounts.19 One of the most controversial women’s issues, reproductive rights, remained a strong personal issue for Ferraro. Despite criticism by conservative Catholics and even her own mother, Ferraro supported abortion rights, vowing to not let her religious beliefs as a Catholic interfere with her constitutional obligation to a separate church and state.20
It was her ability to push her own agenda without abandoning her conservative constituents or taking a threatening feminist stance that caught the attention of her fellow Democratic colleagues and allowed her rapid rise within the party leadership. Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, summed up her political skill, observing that “[Ferraro] manages to be threatening on issues without being threatening personally.”21 Speaker O’Neill observed Ferraro’s seemingly natural political ability and took an immediate liking to the Congresswoman, whom he described as being “solid as a rock.”22 He admired her forthright yet pragmatic style and found her liberal policies, particularly her pro–labor stance, to be parallel with his own.23
Congresswoman Ferraro used her friendship with Speaker O’Neill to open doors for herself and other female colleagues. At the start of the 98th Congress (1983–1985), she sought a position on the prestigious Ways and Means Committee. Ferraro was passed over, mainly because New York was already heavily represented on that committee.24 To the surprise of many congressional veterans, however, O’Neill appointed her to the prominent Budget Committee. In addition to Ferraro’s assignment, other Congresswomen received their preferred appointments. Defending the increase in appointments of women to important committees, Speaker O’Neill claimed that their placement was long overdue and was quoted as saying, “They [women] hadn’t sought those spots before.”25
Ferraro’s rise within the Democratic ranks was further evidenced by her election as Secretary of the Democratic Caucus in 1980 and again in 1982. Historically an honorific position typically held by women Members, party rules had changed such that the Secretary now sat on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the panel responsible for making committee assignments and forming party strategy.26 Ferraro also increased her visibility within the party ranks by playing a prominent role in the 1980 Democratic National Convention. At the 1980 convention, Ferraro introduced the keynote speaker, Representative Morris Udall of Arizona.27 Two years later in 1982, she was instrumental in achieving automatic delegate status to the 1984 Democratic National Convention for three–fifths of the Democrats serving in the House and the Senate, an effort to give professional politicians a chance to unify and shape the party’s platform. In 1984, Ferraro became the first woman to chair the Democratic platform committee. Although she faced the arduous task of creating a unified platform for the upcoming presidential contest, the position afforded Ferraro invaluable media exposure and distinction in the Democratic Party.28
During the 1984 presidential campaign, political strategists and feminist groups pressured the Democratic Party to nominate a woman to the ticket. The movement, which hinged on the belief that selecting a woman as the vice presidential candidate would energize the party and help Democrats compete against popular incumbent President Ronald Reagan (by attracting women voters), gained momentum in the months preceding the convention.29 As rumors circulated that presidential candidate Walter Mondale planned on selecting a female running mate, the leadership’s favorite, Geraldine Ferraro, topped a list that included Representatives Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, Pat Schroeder of Colorado, and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, along with San Francisco Mayor and future U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. On her chances of becoming a vice presidential nominee, Ferraro remarked, “People are no longer hiding behind their hands and giggling when they talk about a woman for national office, and I think that’s wonderful.”30 In July 1984, Mondale selected Ferraro as his running mate, making her the first woman to run for election for a major party on a national ticket.31
Ferraro’s addition to the ballot was expected to appeal to the diverse audience she represented: women, Italian Americans, Roman Catholics, and the northeastern voters. Ultimately, her characteristic pragmatism won her the nomination. Her gender alone would appeal to women and progressive voters, but as fellow House Democrat Tony Coelho of California, commented, Ferraro wasn’t a “threat” to the Democratic mainstream. Qualifying his statement, Coelho said, “She is not a feminist with wounds.”32 Still, some congressional colleagues criticized Ferraro as being too inexperienced on many important issues, most especially on foreign policy matters.33 Other women, including potential candidates Representatives Boggs and Schroeder, questioned Ferraro’s selection, citing themselves as better candidates because of their long experience in Washington politics.34 The campaign momentum stalled when allegations of financial wrong–doing by John Zaccaro emerged. In November 1984, the Mondale–Ferraro ticket was handily defeated by the incumbent Reagan–Bush team. John Zaccaro later was convicted in February 1985 of conducting fraudulent real estate transactions.35
After the defeat, Geraldine Ferraro returned to practicing law. She served as a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics from 1988 until 1992. In addition, she authored three books about her political career. Ferraro re–entered electoral politics when she ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and 1998. After failing to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination in both unsuccessful campaigns, Ferraro vowed to never run again for public office. In 1993, President William J. Clinton appointed her to the United Nations Human Rights Convention in Geneva, Switzerland. Ferraro also was appointed vice chair of the U.S. Delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September, 1995.36 She later worked as president of a global management consulting firm, and as a television analyst and syndicated columnist.
After being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a dangerous form of blood cancer, in 1998, Ferraro spoke publicly about her illness and her use of the drug Thalidomide to treat her condition. In a plea for continued research on Thalidomide’s effects on her illness, she testified at a June 2001 Senate hearing. Using herself as an exhibit, she stated, “I look great, and I feel great, and it’s what early diagnosis and research can do.”37 Ferraro succumbed to the disease after a 12–year battle, and passed away on March 26, 2011, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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