Of the seventeen candidates running in the 2020 presidential race, seven are women. We are growing used to seeing women on the podium at national conventions. But 35 years ago the idea of a woman running for national office shocked the country.
In 1984, Americans found it hard to believe that the Democratic Presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, would choose a woman as his running mate. A woman to be Vice President? Unthinkable! But Geraldine Ferraro already had a history of setting new goals for women.
Many prominent women welcomed Ferraro’s candidacy. The New York Times quotes Ann Richards of Texas as saying “The first thing I thought of was not winning in a political sense, but of my two daughters.” It had been 64 years since women had gotten the right to vote, but Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to demonstrate that even the highest office in the land was not off-limits for women.
It’s not easy to be a pioneer and Ferraro suffered from some of the same attitudes that have dogged female candidates ever since she ran. In 1984, candidates were expected to reveal their tax returns so the public could see where their money came from. Unlike male candidates, Ferraro was extensively questioned about her spouse’s finances and eventually she released her husband’s tax records. Of course, today even presidential candidates have been elected without revealing anything about their tax records. Times change.
Ferraro, like most women of her generation, had become accustomed to being disadvantaged because of her gender. When she graduated from college, her mother urged her to become a teacher because that was suitable work for a woman. When Geraldine decided she wanted to go to law school, an admissions officer warned her that she might be taking a man’s place at the school—an argument frequently used to discourage women from entering professional schools.
After law school Ferraro worked only part time until her children were in school and she felt free to accept a job as an assistant district attorney in Queens. (For many years she and her family lived in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, the same neighborhood in which Donald Trump grew up.) Ferraro moved on to national politics when she ran for Congress in 1978. There she quickly learned to work with Democratic leaders to push through the party’s agenda.
The presidential campaign of 1984 was a difficult one. Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity running for a second term with his running mate George H.W. Bush. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket was not given much chance of victory and sure enough it went down to a sharp defeat in November.
But despite not winning the presidency, the Democrats had proven that a woman could be a formidable candidate and a plus for the party in a national election. Ferraro was a very popular draw at party rallies where she was often greeted by cries of “Gerry, Gerry!”
Ferraro changed several small habits in the country such as popularizing the use of “Ms” instead of either Miss or Mrs. During the 1984 campaign, the New York Times refused to use “Ms” and referred to Ferraro as “Mrs. Ferraro”, despite complaints from their resident grammarian William Safire. It was another two years before the NY Times finally allowed “Ms” to be used in their paper.
Geraldine Ferraro continued to be an active participant in political and social activities after the 1984 campaign, although she never again held public office. She died in 2011, after having lived long enough to see the revolution of women’s participation in public life in which she played such a large role. Women candidates today owe her a vote of thanks.
When I was ten years old, I decided I wanted to grow up and be the first woman president of the United States. My teachers encouraged girls with all the stories about how women, having finally achieved the vote, and having served in so
many capacities in World War II, were destined to be leaders just as men were. And we had great role models in Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn who portrayed strong, capable women in the movies. Somehow my life didn’t turn out that way and neither did the life of any other woman of my generation. Now, more than half a century later, we are still waiting to see the first female president.
I remembered those optimistic feelings when I read Gail Collins’s thought-provoking column in today’s New York Times about “Hillary in History”. Collins goes through the list of women who have come close to the presidency or attempted to reach it, starting with Victoria Woodhull in 1872. who I have written about in this blog. There have been other contenders over the years, including Shirley Chisholm and
Margaret Chase Smith, but none was ever taken as seriously as Hillary Clinton. Millions of women will be cheered by her victory if she wins—cheered perhaps even if they don’t agree with all of her positions and policies. It’s wonderful to think that at last a woman is being taken very seriously as a potential threat to the old-boy network that has run the country, and the world, for so long.
An yet, nothing is perfect. When President Obama was elected in 2008, the media and many of us ordinary citizens engaged in an orgy of celebration. With an African American in the White House, we must surely have seen the end of racism in the country. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, has it? We still have to struggle with the everyday racism that affects so many Americans despite the great achievements of individuals members of minority groups.
No doubt it will be the same with women. If Hillary takes over the White House, we can expect she will have the successes and failures that all presidents have encountered. There will not be a sudden rise of women to executive positions in the top corporations; Silicon Valley firms will still hire more men than women; and media commentators will still believe it’s appropriate to critique a woman’s fashion choices instead of her policy statements when she gives a speech.
Golda Meir was one of the most powerful leaders of Israel and Margaret Thatcher one of the notable British leaders of recent years, but as we look at the pictures of powerful leaders in Israel and England today, the women are notably absent (except for Scotland, of course, which carries on its independent ways). The election of Hillary Clinton will not change the entire fabric of women’s position in society, but if it happens, it will be an important step toward the eventual goal of having every individual given a fair and equal place in the world.
Meanwhile be sure to read Gail Collins’s column!