Geraldine Ferraro: Lawyer, legislator, trailblazer

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin July 19, 1984. A Manhattan living room. Twenty of us are watching the Democratic National Convention, waiting for its nominee for president, Walter Mondale, to reveal his running mate. When he announces he has chosen Geraldine Ferraro — the first woman named to a national slate by a major political party — we go wild. Jumping around, hugging each other, we take to the fire stairs and burst out onto the roof of the apartment building. And on rooftops all around us, we found more people laughing, shouting, calling out to one another. It was a heady time, especially if you were a woman. For days afterward, we seemed to walk with more pride, high-fived each other on the streets, absorbed Ferraro's triumph as our own. Though subsequent events — challenges to her family's tax records, slurs against her husband's business dealings, grueling media interrogation, attacks by the Catholic Church against her pro-choice stand and the landslide victory of the Reagan-Bush ticket — tempered the ecstasy of that historic moment, its long-term political, social and psychological impact cannot be overestimated. And yet Ferraro wasn't so much an activist as she was a lawyer and a legislator. She started out as a public school teacher. She attended Fordham Law School at night (where she was one of only two women in her 1960 graduating class) and raised three children while doing legal work on the side. In 1974, when few women were prosecutors, she was appointed an assistant district attorney in Queens. Assigned to the special victims bureau, she prosecuted rape, domestic violence and child abuse and soon became a passionate advocate for women, children and poor people. I met her around that time, and when she told me how shocked she was to discover that she was being paid less than her male colleagues (a discrepancy her superior defended on the grounds that she had a husband to support her), I tried to get her involved in the women's movement. She said she was a strong proponent of women's equality, but she wasn't a protester. After three terms in Congress and her 1984 vice presidential defeat, she waged two unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate, and then served in the Clinton administration as ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. From 1996 on, she practiced law and spoke out on behalf of women's equality, affordable healthcare and reproductive rights. Instantly recognizable by her short gray-blond bob, her Queens accent on steroids, Ferraro never retreated into the history books. Being “the first” back in 1984 brought her relentless scrutiny, but she held her own for us all. From then on, when we told our daughters, “You can be anything,” it wasn't wishful thinking. Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of nine books. Above, Ferraro is seen in 1984.
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