Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman from a major party ever to run for vice president, died yesterday at age 75. Ferraro was a Queens criminal prosecutor and then representative in Congress who joined Walter Mondale in a presidential run in 1984. Although the Walter-Mondale ticket proved no match for Ronald Reagan and George Bush (41), Ferraro nevertheless busted through the glass ceiling of national politics 64 years after women were acknowledged their right to vote. Ferraro was raised in Queens and the Bronx by a single mother who worked as a seamstress; her father died of a heart attack when she was eight. She attended the Marymount School, a Catholic boarding school in Tarrytown, NY, and Marymount College in Manhattan. At Marymount, she was the editor of the school newspaper and played sports. After graduating college in 1956, Ferraro taught at a public school in Queens before applying to Fordham Law School — where she was told during an interview that she might be taking a man’s place. She attended Fordham’s night school and earned her law degree in 1960, only one of two women in a class of nearly 200.
Geraldine Ferraro married two days after she passed the New York State bar exam but mostly devoted the first 13 years of her married life to raising her three children, although she did some pro bono work for the local family court. After her cousin was elected Queens district attorney in 1973, she was hired as a criminal prosecutor on the special victims unit, investigating issues like domestic violence and rape. She ran for representative of a district in Queens in 1978 under the slogan “Finally, a tough Democrat” and served for three terms. One of her most famous pieces of legislation, the Washington Post reports, was the Economic Equity Act, “which outlawed unequal treatment of women in workplace salaries and pensions.”
Ferraro’s vice presidential run with Mondale seems to be regarded as a blessing and a burden by historians. Although Reagan ultimately won the women’s vote, many women — feminists, for instance — were thrilled to support Ferraro. She supported the (still unratified) Equal Rights Amendment, which declared that men and women have equal rights, and supported legal abortion, although she herself was personally opposed to abortion as a Roman Catholic. Sexism was an uphill battle during her campaign. According to The New York Times, a Catholic bishop repeatedly referred to her during a press conference as “Geradine” while George Bush was referred to as the more respectful “Mr. Bush”; a Mississippi secretary called her “young lady” and asked if she could bake blueberry muffins. Barbara Bush even called her a “bitch” by way of saying “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” Bush’s press secretary complained to her as “too bitchy” as well. (Ferraro was also, it should be noted, the first Italian-American to run for national office.)
In her later life, Ferraro was a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, co-hosted CNN’s show “Crossfire” and served as ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission under President Clinton, and appeared on Fox News as a commentator. She ran for U.S. Senate in 1992 and 1998, but both times lost in the primaries. She is survived by her husband, three kids and eight grandchildren.
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