Ferraro, Geraldine (1935—)

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Ferraro, Geraldine (1935—)

American politician and vice-presidential nominee in 1984 who was the first American woman nominated for a major political office. Name variations: Geraldine Zaccaro. Pronunciation: fe-RAR-o. Born Geraldine Anne Ferraro in Newburgh, New York, on August 26, 1935; daughter of Dominick (a businessman) and Antonetta (Corrieri) Ferraro; graduated Marymount Manhattan College, B.A., 1956; J.D., Fordham Law School, 1960; married John A. Zaccaro, in 1960; children: Donna Zaccaro ; John Zaccaro, Jr.; Laura Zaccaro .

Appointed assistant district attorney, Queens, New York (1975); elected to the House of Representatives (1978); reelected to the House of Representatives (1982); nominated for vice president at Democratic National Convention (1984); ran as unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate (1992); served as a public delegate (February 1993) and alternate U.S. delegate to the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna (June 1993); appointed U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission by President Bill Clinton (1994), serving two years; was vice-chair of the U.S. delegation at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing (September 1955); was co-host of "Crossfire," a political interview program on CNN (1996–98); was a partner in the CEO Perspective Group, a consulting firm that advises top executives (1996–98); ran as unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate (1998).

On July 12, 1984, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was named the vice-presidential running mate of Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. It was the first time in U.S. history that a woman had been chosen to run on a major political ticket. "Mr. Mondale…announced his historic step before an ebullient crowd at the State Capitol," wrote Bernard Weintraub in a front-page story in The New York Times. "He introduced Mrs. Ferraro by saying, 'I looked for the best Vice President and I found her in Gerry Ferraro.'"

Across America, women cheered, while feminists, politicians and pundits jammed the airwaves with their reactions to the announcement. As the first woman nominated for vice president, Ferraro became the newest and most important member of an exclusive sisterhood of political pioneers dating back to 1917 when the first woman, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to political office three years before women won the right to vote. Historically, the route for women to Washington was through widowhood. But Ferraro, who worked and campaigned her way into office, epitomized the new woman on Capitol Hill. Her increasing influence in Washington and subsequent nomination signaled the rising power of women in the sphere of American politics, a domain that traditionally had been restricted to men.

Geraldine Anne Ferraro was born on August 26, 1935, the last child and only daughter of Italian immigrant Dominick Ferraro and Antonetta Corrieri Ferraro , a first-generation Italian-American. The couple celebrated the birth of each of their four children, but the birth of Geraldine, a healthy baby girl, was cause for particular joyous and poignant family celebration. Before her birth, the Ferraros had experienced the sudden and tragic deaths of two boys; one infant died when he was six days old, another had died in his mother's arms at the age of three in a car accident. In between the two deaths, Antonetta Ferraro suffered a miscarriage.

This string of tragedies took an emotional toll on Ferraro's mother who suffered with severe depression. "I only have children to put them in the cemetery," Antonetta lamented to friends and family. To alleviate the depression, the family doctor urged her to become pregnant again. "I had been special to [my father] because I was the baby, the only girl after four boys, and because I had brought my mother back to life," Ferraro later recalled. My mother "delivered me at home in sheets sprayed with Lysol because she was afraid if she left my brother Carl to go to the hospital, something would happen to him."

Geraldine Ferraro spent the first eight years of her life in Newburgh, New York, where her parents earned a modest living running a restaurant and a five-and-dime business. But another tragedy soon struck the family, a blow from which they would never fully recover. When Geraldine Ferraro was eight, her father died suddenly at the age of 44 of a heart attack.

Faced with this personal and financial catastrophe, Ferraro's mother sold the house in Newburgh and moved with her two children to a tiny apartment in the South Bronx. Antonetta accepted a job as a crochet beader and eked out a marginal living, struggling to support her two children. The sudden reversal of fortune left a strong impression on the young girl. "My father's death changed my life forever," Ferraro later recalled. "I found out how quickly what you have can be taken away. From that moment on, I had to fight for whatever I wanted, to work and study my way out of the South Bronx and take my mother with me."

Determined to give her children every possible advantage, Antonetta Ferraro labored long hours to earn enough money to send them away to good schools. Geraldine was a hard-working, naturally gifted student who excelled at school and even skipped a couple of grades. She graduated from Marymount School in Tarrytown in 1952 and matriculated at Marymount Manhattan College where she graduated in 1956.

After a brief and unsatisfying stint as a legal secretary, Ferraro enrolled at Fordham Law School in 1957 where she was one of two women in her class. She attended classes at night and by day worked as an elementary school teacher. She graduated with honors in 1960 and a few days later married real-estate developer John A. Zaccaro. She settled down to domestic life in Queens, New York, and for the next 14 years played the dual role of wife and mother to her husband and their three children. Any career plans she might have had were put on hold; during that time, she practiced civil law sporadically and occasionally acted as a lawyer for her husband's real-estate company. The real-estate company prospered, and the family became wealthy.

In 1974, her cousin, a Queens district attorney, appointed Geraldine Ferraro an assistant district attorney. As such, she handled up to 40 criminal cases at a time. Then, in 1977, she was named bureau chief of a new sex-crimes division, which was responsible for handling all sex offenses in Queens county, including child abuse and rape. Her division was also charged with implementing recently passed battered-spouse legislation. Ferraro soon faced the inadequacies of the legal system to relieve the suffering of abused children, battered wives, and rape victims she encountered. The discovery that she was being paid significantly less money than the other bureau chiefs—all of whom were men—was another difficult lesson.

Based on her experiences, Ferraro began to contemplate a career in politics. "Working with victims of crime, I saw firsthand that there were real limitations on how much the current laws could help people with fewer resources or power: the elderly, poor mothers and their children, the undereducated. I wanted to make a difference in the most direct way I could, to create opportunities instead of neglect." In 1978, Ferraro ran for Congress in the Ninth District of Queens, New York, a historically conservative ethnic district. Using the slogan, "Finally…a tough Democrat" she ran on a law-and-order platform and with 54% of the vote won a seat in the House of Representatives.

When Ferraro arrived in Washington she was one of only 17 women in the House of Representatives and the Senate. She quickly realized that her male colleagues in the House regarded her with some suspicion and derision; her first committee assignment was to the inconsequential House Post Office and Civil Service Committee.

It was soon apparent to Ferraro that the lack of female representation in Congress was reflected in the paucity of legislation designed to benefit women. She was determined to change this by bringing the concerns of women to bear on policy making. To this end, Ferraro initiated a pension-equity bill in 1981 designed to make private pensions fairer and to legally recognize marriage as an economic partnership, thus giving women greater access to their husbands' pension plans and retirement benefits. Her bill also mandated that business allow women to participate in profit-sharing and retirement plans during certain job absences such as maternity leave. Another bill Ferraro sponsored would have given a two-year tax credit to employers who hired displaced homemakers. But with little support from other members of the House, the bills went nowhere.

San Francisco, 1984">

Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Geraldine Ferraro, and I'm proud to accept your nomination for vice president of the United States.

—Geraldine Ferraro, San Francisco, 1984

Ferraro was not the only woman in Congress frustrated by what she perceived as her male colleagues' indifference to women's issues. In 1983, acting together, the Democratic and Republican female members of the House sponsored a major piece of legislation called the Women's Equity Act. This act included Ferraro's two previous bills as well as other bills providing tax relief to single heads of households, civil service pension reform to aid wives and widows in receiving spouses' retirement benefits, funds for community child-care information and referral services, elimination of federal regulations that hampered women in business, and an improved system of child-support enforcement. Though not entirely successful, the Women's Equity Act scored some important victories, including the passage of Ferraro's pension-equity bill which President Ronald Reagan signed into law on August 23, 1984.

In 1981, Ferraro was also appointed to the Hunt Commission, a 70-member committee set up to review presidential delegate selection rules. She played a key role in devising a plan (known as the "Ferraro plan") under which a group of elected Democrats and party officials would go to the election convention as "superdelegates" uncommitted to any candidate. In a Washington Post story, her colleague on the commission, Mark Siegel, called Ferraro "a bridge between the new and old politics and between the feminists and the organization democrats."

In her six years in the House of Representatives, Ferraro established a voting record considerably more liberal than that of her largely conservative constituents. Early on, she earned a reputation as a team player, voting with the majority of House Democrats more than 90% of the time. She occasionally broke with the House leadership, however, on votes that aligned her more closely with her blue-collar constituents. For example, on social issues she advocated tax credits for parents who sent their children to private school and opposed mandatory busing of schoolchildren to achieve racial integration. But on matters of foreign policy, she consistently upheld the Democratic party line of noninterventionism and constrained defense spending, voting against American financing for Nicaraguan rebels, the financing of the MX missile, and the production of the B-1 bomber.

Ferraro gained influence in the House and made some powerful allies, including Speaker of the House, Thomas "Tip" O'Neill. Following her 1982 reelection, she was given a seat on the powerful House Budget Committee, which is responsible for allocating funds for every program before Congress. She was also named chair of the Democratic Platform Committee in 1984. Later that year when Senator Walter Mondale, the probable Democratic presidential nominee, began searching for a vice-presidential running mate, Geraldine Ferraro was a name roundly endorsed by Democratic Party officials. Mondale's decision to nominate Ferraro (who was not only the first woman, but the first Italian-American chosen to run on a major ticket) was in part a shrewd political calculation designed to gather support among blue-collar and trade-union voters. It was also a move intended to spark some excitement into what was generally considered a lackluster candidacy. Mondale's announcement of Ferraro as his running mate on July 12 and her official nomination as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee at the Democratic National Convention, one week later, did just that: it rejuvenated the Democratic Party and Mondale's flagging campaign. Her nomination also met with a deluge of media attention and a

groundswell of support from women voters and Democratic Party officials. "What a high that night was," wrote Ferraro of her nomination at the Democratic Convention in San Francisco. "As I looked out over the convention floor, I saw faces of America: farmers, factory workers, young professionals, the elderly, business executives, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Native Americans, people of Asian descent and women—so many women. No one wanted to leave. Even my normally more sobersided peers and colleagues were caught up in the euphoria."

Despite repeated Republican criticism of her as a political "novice" totally inexperienced in foreign affairs, Ferraro proved a tenacious, cool, and enthusiastic politician on the hustings. Campaigning throughout the country, she demonstrated a talent for rhetoric and a solid grasp of domestic issues and foreign policy. In speeches and in her televised debate with Republican vice president George Bush, she ably denounced the domestic policies of Ronald Reagan as damaging to women, middle-class families, and the poor, and criticized the Republicans' foreign policy as costly, short-sighted, and detrimental to world peace.

In the debate, Bush came across as condescending and repeatedly called her "Mrs. Ferraro" when "Congresswoman Ferraro" had been the agreed-upon appellation. In one rebuttal, Ferraro showed her annoyance: "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy. I have been a member of Congress for six years."

Ferraro was the focus of more media attention than any other vice-presidential candidate in history. Although the American public and the press were initially supportive, she fell victim to an aggressive backlash of sentiment against her. As a woman, she was declared unfit; as an Italian-American, she was accused of having ties to organized crime; as a Catholic who personally opposed abortion but nevertheless upheld the right of women to choose, she was repeatedly attacked by Catholic leaders, including Archbishop John O'Connor of New York. Eventually her candidacy became jeopardized amidst growing speculation over husband John Zaccaro's alleged unlawful business practices. Questions were also raised about the financing of her 1978 campaign for Congress and whether she had violated the requirements of the Ethics in Government Act by not reporting the details of her husband's finances.

As Ferraro became bogged down in answering these charges and as Walter Mondale fended off growing concern about possible Democratic tax hikes and increased spending, the enthusiasm for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket began to evaporate. "More than once in the next four months, as the euphoria faded and the highs were equaled by the lows," wrote Ferraro, "I would remember my mother's words to me when I was young. 'Don't forget your name,' she would tell me. 'Ferro means iron. You can bend it, but you can't break it.'" The Republican incumbents (Reagan/Bush) defeated the Democratic challengers (Mondale/Ferraro) in 48 of the 50 states and won the biggest electoral vote in U.S. history. The stunning sweep was in large part predictable since no incumbent U.S. president had ever lost an election following a year of economic growth.

Despite the Reagan/Bush landslide of 1984, the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro has had a lasting effect on American politics. As Bella Abzug noted in an editorial in The New York Times three weeks after the election: "From now on the public will be more accepting when a woman runs for high office. All-male control of national political leadership is no longer written in stone or engraved on voting machines."

Following the election, Ferraro decided not to run for Congress in 1986, opting instead to spend more time with her family. Her autobiographical account of the campaign, Ferraro: My Story, was published a year later. In 1992, she was defeated in a close race for a seat in the U.S. Senate amid renewed allegations of ties to organized crime and illegal business dealings. She then signed on to co-host CNN's "Crossfire" for three years. In 1998, Ferraro made another bid for the Senate but lost in the primary to Charles Schumer. Though presently not in public office, Geraldine Ferraro remains a popular lecturer, a television analyst, and a visible and outspoken advocate for the rights of women and minorities, health care reform, and world peace.

Despite her subsequent losses, she has earned a respected place in history. Few women will forget that nominating night in San Francisco when a woman stood on the podium and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Geraldine Ferraro, and I'm proud to accept your nomination for vice president of the United States." The crowd in the Moscone Center had gone wild.

A few days after the convention, Ferraro received a letter from one such woman. "I'm sitting here this morning with my coffee and this week's Time with you on the cover. As I begin to read, I find myself in tears. Tears of joy, of relief, of saying at last, I don't have to feel second class anymore. I'm thirty-six years old. I'm a Republican. For years something's burned inside me. Resentment about the way women are perceived in the world. Shame in halfway believing it. And now you've come along to say—never again do I have to feel this way.…You have changed my life—maybe even my vote."

sources and suggested reading:

Ferraro, Geraldine A. Changing History: Women, Power and Politics. Wakefield: Moyer Bell, 1993.

——, and Linda Bird Francke. Ferraro: My Story. NY: Bantam Books, 1985.

——, and Catherine Whitney. Framing a Life: A Family Memoir. Scribner, 1998.

Hartmann, Susan M. From Margin to Mainstream: American Women and Politics Since 1960. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989.

The New York Times. July 13, 1984; July 19, 1984; July 20, 1984; August 18, 1984; September 2, 1984; August 21, 1984; December 22, 1984; December 30, 1984; February 21, 1987; March 14, 1992; May 15, 1992; August 20, 1992; September 16, 1992.

Uglow, Jennifer S., ed. The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer and editor, Decatur, Georgia

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