Negotiating Politics – Remembering Geraldine Ferraro
It’s hot in Sacramento in the summer. Yes, I know, it’s a dry heat. But 113 degrees? Hot.
I was standing in Capitol Park with a crowd of women, sweating under the summer sun. We were waiting to hear a woman speak – the first woman in American history to be nominated for national office by a major political party –Geraldine A. Ferraro.
That woman died today in Boston at 75.
I don’t recall a single word candidate Ferraro said that day. All I remember are the tears that so unexpectedly streamed down my cheeks. I was no sissy. At the time I was developing the bronze cojones necessary to practice law in the highly male world of commercial litigation. In a farm town to boot.
Just to give you the flavor of 1984 California, my male colleagues still openly referred to women as “muffs.” The firm’s clients – big ones like the predecessor to Comcast – still objected to having a “girl” working on their cases. My boss, a stand-up guy, always said, “then you don’t want to hire us because she’s one of the best young lawyers we’ve got.”
Still. It was dispiriting.
Why Ferraro is and was Important
Why was I crying as I listened to candidate Ferraro speak that day? Because there were still so few women in public life that the mereappearance of a woman on a national party ticket felt like victory. It was working – the women’s movement – in which I’d last been actively involved in 1975 when I moved to New York City and threw myself into the still unusual quest to be a lawyer.
Here I was. A practicing commercial litigator. And there Ferraro was. A Vice-Presidential candidate. It was exhilarating. Women were becoming a central part of the American story. That meant I was a part of it too. I hadn’t dreamed too big as my mother had warned me I had.
All over the country, other women were being affected by Ferraro’s historic run for Vice-President as well. C.V. Harquail of Authentic Organizations, was working in her first “real job” as a sales rep for Proctor & Gamble in New York City. She was the only woman on a management track in her sales district. “I remember a long car ride back from a big sales call with my district manager,” says Harquail. “He asked me if I supported Ferraro because she was a woman. ‘Not really’ I said, ‘though it’s pretty exciting.’
“I explained that there had been other women candidates for President and Vice President before Ferraro – Shirley Chisholm and Victoria Woodhull, for instance. I said I liked Ferraro because she was a feminist, an ERA supporter, pro-choice and a democrat. ‘She was a woman of substance,’ I continued, ‘educated, articulate and a forceful advocate for liberal causes.’ I think I actually frightened him with my views. But it was a real and honest conversation prompted by his genuine interest. It felt good to share with my colleague a point of view that went beyond knee-jerk support for a candidate ‘just because she was a woman.’”
Harquail said she was saddened that the conversation she had with her District Manager in 1984 hadn’t advanced very much in the ensuing 25 years. “People still struggle with the idea of supporting a woman candidate because of her gender instead of talking primarily about her positions on policy.”
Ferraro Gave No Excuses
Gerry exemplified the first wave of women who aspired to political office and had the courage to run of their own volition, rather than as surrogates for their husbands. Smart, tough, and always willing to put herself forward to help women advance, Gerry also fought multiple myeloma (a blood cancer that usually kills within two years) valiantly for over 12 years. Rest in peace, and thank you, Gerry Ferraro.
Every woman willing to step on the national stage – as a leader of industry (CEO Brenda C. Barnes of Sara Lee), a pundit (Maureen Dowd), a poet (Jorie Graham), a politician (Olympia Snowe), a lawyer (former Secretary of Education and WLALA life member, Shirley Hufstedler), a mother (Michelle Obama), or an international diplomat (Hillary Clinton), gives every American girl hope that her dreams can be fulfilled and courage to take the steps necessary to fulfill them.
Always the sunny optimist, I believe we’ve come quite a long way in the politics of gender since Ferraro first stepped on the national stage. I don’t know anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton simply because she was a woman and I’d heard surprisingly little talk about her ability to get the job done based on her gender. There was also quite a lot of discussion among Democrats about the McCain campaign’s apparent belief that they could peel women voters away from Obama simply by choosing a woman for Vice-President. A decision I think everyone agrees was a disastrous one for the Republican party, popular as Sarah Palin appears to be today.
Although we’ve still got a lot of work to do, it’s good to pause and remember where we’ve been and to whom we owe so much. To Ms. Feldt’s sentiment I add my own. Rest in peace, candidate Ferraro. Thank you for stepping up and standing up. Thank you for giving hundreds of thousands of women the courage to negotiate our own place and to play our own part – small or large – in women’s history.