I was six years old when, in 1984, Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro to serve as the first woman on a major presidential ticket. I could not understand at the time the historical significance of her selection, though my mother took me to see her speak when she came to our town and told me, "Remember that you were here. This is history."
I had not yet learned about Victoria Woodhull, the first American woman who ran for president. She ran with Frederick Douglass on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, before women even had the right to vote. There is, in fact, a long list of women who were nominated to other party tickets: the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Right to Life Party, and others. Many more, like Shirley Chisholm in 1972, or Elizabeth Dole in 2000, or Hillary Clinton in 2008, made unsuccessful bids for the nomination of both the Democratic and Republican parties. But it was Ferraro who first appeared on a major ticket and, for the first time, made it seem possible that the most unbreakable of glass ceilings could, at long last, be broken.
Even before she was plucked from relative obscurity by Mondale, she had long served the cause of women's rights. She headed the Special Victims unit of the Queens County District Attorney's Office, prosecuting rape, child abuse, and domestic violence, when female prosecutors were still a rarity. In 1978, she was elected to the House of Representatives, where she cosponsored the Economic Equity Act and fought for other legislation to enforce pay equity for women. In the 1990s, she was chosen by President Clinton to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Throughout her career, she dedicated herself to working with organizations to advance women's causes, from the National Organization of Italian American Women to the International Institute for Women's Political Leadership.
Certainly, she was not without controversy, during the 1984 election or, more recently, in 2008, when she suggested that Barack Obama's success in the primaries was due to his skin color. She subsequently resigned her position on Hillary Clinton's finance committee, but the damage to her reputation among Democrats had been done, even though she later endorsed the Obama-Biden ticket.
In a statement released today, President Obama acknowledged the mark Ferraro left on our nation's history:
Geraldine will forever be remembered as a trailblazer who broke down barriers for women, and Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life. Whether it was as a public school teacher, assistant district attorney, Member of Congress, or candidate for Vice President, Geraldine fought to uphold America's founding ideals of equality, justice, and opportunity for all. And as our Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission, she stood up for those ideals around the world. Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live.
Despite the controversies that surrounded her, Ferraro changed forever what women could believe was possible. Her role in the 1984 election moved this country one more step forward in the long march toward the day when the Boys Only sign is at last removed from the White House. Every woman who dares to see herself on the national ticket of either major political party cannot help but give thanks to Ferraro, who was willing to be the first.
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