Groundbreaking political figure Geraldine Ferraro dies

A button from the 1984 election in a heart shape with Geraldine's face

This past weekend, Geraldine Ferraro, best known for her groundbreaking presence as the Vice-Presidential candidate on the ill-fated 1984 Democratic ticket alongside Walter Mondale, died at age 75.

The team lost by a landslide to President Ronald Reagan, but Ferraro’s presence on that ticket was not long forgotten.

As Mr. Mondale’s surprise choice, Ms. Ferraro rocketed to national prominence, propelled by fervid feminist support, a spirited and sometimes saucy personality, canny political skills and the calculation by Democratic strategists that Reagan might be vulnerable on issues thought to be more important to women.

Unsurprisingly Ferraro faced a lot of criticism as the first woman in such a role (sound familiar?). Her qualifications were vigorously questioned and some posited that she was a liability to the Mondale ticket.

Everywhere people were adjusting — or manifestly not adjusting — to a woman on a national ticket. Mississippi’s agriculture secretary called Ms. Ferraro “young lady” and asked if she could bake blueberry muffins. When a Roman Catholic bishop gave a news conference in Pennsylvania, he repeatedly referred to the Republican vice-presidential nominee as “Mr. Bush” and to the Democratic one as “Geraldine.”

Not so much has changed on that front if we look to the political and media treatment of both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, often laced with sexism.

After her failed VP bid, Ferraro ran again for office but was not successful. She went on to work at the UN, host the show Crossfire in the late 90s and write books.

Most recently, Ferraro got much media attention for her racist comments about then candidate Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign when she was working for the Hilary Clinton campaign. She continued to lose favor by vigorously defending the comments even after she’d stepped down from the campaign. This media splash was a glaring omission in the NY Times obituary I quoted above. There was no mention at all of her participation in the 2008 Clinton campaign.

One of the challenges of recognizing the legacy of major figures like Ferraro is that they are, more often than not, complicated. Ferraro definitely broke new ground as the first woman VP on a major party ticket. For that she deserves recognition, particularly from the feminist community. But we cannot ignore other more fraught parts of her legacy either.

Ferraro died Saturday after a twelve year battle with cancer.

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