Who Was the First Woman Nominated for Vice President?

By a Major American Political Party?

Ferraro and Mondale Campaigning
Ferraro and Mondale Campaigning. PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Question: Who was the first woman nominated as a vice presidential candidate by a major American political party?

Answer: In 1984, Walter Mondale, Democratic nominee for president, selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, and his choice was confirmed by the Democratic National Convention.

The only other woman nominated for vice president by a major party was Sarah Palin in 2008.

The Nomination

At the time of the Democratic National Convention of 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was serving her sixth year in Congress.

An Italian-American from Queens, New York, since she moved there in 1950, she was an active Roman Catholic. She kept her birth name when she married John Zaccaro. She had been a public school teacher and a prosecuting attorney.

Already, there was speculation that the popular Congresswoman would run for the Senate in New York in 1986.  She asked the Democratic party to make her the head of the platform committee for its 1984 convention. As early as 1983, an op-ed in the New York Times by Jane Perletz urged that Ferraro be given the vice president slot on the Democratic ticket. She was appointed to chair the platform committee.

Candidates for the presidential slot in 1984 included Walter F. Mondale, Senator Gary Hart and the Rev. Jesse Jackson all had delegates, though it was clear that Mondale would win the nomination. 

There was still talk in the months before the convention of placing Ferraro's name in nomination at the convention, whether Mondale chose her as his running mate or not.

Ferraro finally clarified in June that she would not permit her name to be put in nomination if it would be counterposed to Mondale's choice. A number of powerful women Democrats, including Maryland's Representative Barbara Mikulski, were pressuring Mondale to pick Ferraro or face a floor fight.

In her acceptance speech to the convention, memorable words included "If we can do this, we can do anything.” A Reagan landslide defeated the Mondale-Ferraro ticket.

 She was only the fourth member of the House to that point in the 20th century to run as a major party candidate for vice president.

Conservatives including William Safire criticized her for use of the honorific Ms. and for using the term "gender" instead of "sex."  The New York Times, refusing by its style guide to use Ms. with her name, settled at her request on calling her Mrs. Ferraro.

During the campaign, Ferraro tried to bring issues that were about women's lives to the forefront.  A poll right after the nomination showed Mondale/Ferraro winning the women's vote while men favored the Republican ticket.

Her casual approach at appearances, coupled with her quick responses to questions and her clear competence, endeared her to supporters. She was not afraid to publicly say that her counterpart on the Republican ticket, George H. W. Bush, was patronizing.

Questions about Ferraro's finances dominated the news for quite a while during the campaign. Many believed that there was more focus on her family's finances because she was a woman, and some thought it was because she and her husband were Italian-Americans.

In particular, the investigations looked at loans made from her husband's finances to her first Congressional campaign, an error on 1978 income taxes resulting in back taxes owed of $60,000, and her disclosure of her own finances but refusal to disclose her husband's detailed tax filings.

She was reported to have won support among Italian-Americans, particularly because of her heritage, and because some Italian-Americans suspected that the harsh attacks on her husband's finances reflected stereotypes about Italian-Americans.

But for a variety of reasons, including facing an incumbent in an improving economy and Mondale's statement that a tax increase was inevitable, Mondale/Ferraro lost in November.  About 55 percent of women, and more men, voted for the Republicans.

The Aftermath

For many women, breaking the glass ceiling with that nomination was inspiring.  It would be another 24 years before another woman was nominated for the vice presidency by a major party. 1984 was called the Year of the Woman for women's activity in working in and running in campaigns. (1992 was later also called Year of the Woman for the number of women who won Senate and House seats.) Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kansas) won reelection to the Senate.

Three women, two Republicans and one Democrat, won their elections to become first-term Representatives in the House.  Many women challenged incumbents, though few won. 

A House Ethics committee in 1984 decided that Ferraro should have reported details of her husband's finances as part of her financial disclosures as a member of Congress. They took no action to sanction her, finding that she had omitted the information unintentionally.

She remained a spokesperson for feminist causes, though largely as an independent voice.  When many Senators defended Clarence Thomas and attacked the character of his accuser, Anita Hill, she said that men "still don't get it."

She refused an offer to run for the Senate against Republican incumbent Alfonse M. D'Amato in the 1986 race. In 1992, in the next election to seek to unseat D'Amato, there was talk of Ferraro running, and also stories about Elizabeth Holtzman (Brooklyn District Attorney) showing ads that implied a connection of Ferraro's husband to organized crime figures.

In 1993, President Clinton appointed Ferraro as an ambassador, appointed to be a representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

In 1998 Ferraro decided to pursue a race against the same incumbent.  The likely Democratic primary field included Rep. Charles Schumer (Brooklyn), Elizabeth Holtzman and Mark Green, New York City Public Advocate.  Ferraro had the support of Gov. Cuomo. She dropped out of the race over an investigation into whether her husband had made illegal large contributions to her 1978 Congressional campaign.

Schumer won the primary and the election.

Supporting Hillary Clinton in 2008

The same year, 2008, that the next woman was nominated for vice president by a major party, Hillary Clinton had nearly won the Democratic nomination for the top of the ticket, the presidency. Ferraro supported the campaign strongly, and said quite publicly was marked by sexism.

About Geraldine Ferraro

Geraldine Ferraro was born in Newburgh, New York. 

Her father, Dominick Ferraro, ran a restaurant until his death when Geraldine was eight years old. To support her two surviving children, Geraldine's mother, Antonetta Ferraro, moved the family to New York City, where she worked in the garment industry.

Geraldine Ferraro went to a Catholic girls' high school and then to Marymount Manhattan College, gaining credentials for teaching by taking courses at Hunter College. She taught in the New York City public schools while studying at night at Fordham University Law School.

Marriage

Ferraro married John Zaccaro that same year, and she practiced law while raising their three children, two daughters and a son. In 1974, she took a position as an assistant district attorney in Queens. She focused on cases where the victims were women and children.

Political Career

In 1978, Ferraro ran for Congress, advertising herself as a "tough Democrat." She was re-elected in 1980 and again in 1982. The district was known for being somewhat conservative, ethnic, and blue-collar.

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro served as chair of the Democratic Party Platform Committee, and the presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, selected her as his running mate after an extensive "vetting" process, and after a good deal of public pressure to pick a woman.

The Republican campaign focused on her husband's finances and his business ethics and she faced charges of her family's ties to organized crime. The Catholic church openly criticized her for her pro-choice position on reproductive rights. Gloria Steinem later commented, "What has the women's movement learned from her candidacy for vice president? Never get married."

The Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost to the very popular Republican ticket, headed by Ronald Reagan, winning only one state and the District of Columbia for 13 electoral votes.

Private Life

Ferraro had chosen not to run for re-election so, in January, 1985, she returned to private life and wrote a book on the campaign. In 1992, she ran for the Senate from New York, but lost the primary. One of her primary opponents, Elizabeth Holtzman, accused Ferraro's husband of having Mafia ties.

Ferraro wrote two more books, one on women and politics, and the other on the story of her mother and the historical contribution of other immigrant women. She was Vice chair of U.S. Delegation at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 1995, and has worked as an analyst for Fox News. She also worked on projects to raise funds for women candidates.

Geraldine Ferraro was active in the Hillary Clinton primary campaign in 2008 when she commented, in March, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept." She responded harshly to criticism of her remarks, saying "Racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?" Clinton expressed disapproval of Ferraro's comments.

Books by Geraldine Ferraro:

  • Changing History: Women, Power and Politics (1993; reprint 1998)
  • My Story (1996; Reprint 2004)
  • Framing a Life: A Family Memoir (1998)

Selected Geraldine Ferraro Quotations

• Tonight, the daughter of an immigrant from Italy has been chosen to run for vice president in the new land my father came to love.

• We fought hard. We gave it our best. We did what was right and we made a difference.

• We've chosen the path to equality; don't let them turn us around.

• Unlike the American revolution, which began with the "shot heard round the world," the rebellion of Seneca Falls -- steeped in moral conviction and rooted in the abolitionist movement -- dropped like a stone in the middle of a placid lake, causing ripples of change. No governments were overthrown, no lives were lost in bloody battles, no single enemy was identified and vanquished. The disputed territory was the human heart and the contest played itself out in every American institution: our homes, our churches, our schools, and ultimately in the provinces of power. -- from the forward to A History of the American Suffragist Movement

• I'd call it a new version of voodoo economics, but I'm afraid that would give witch doctors a bad name.

• It was not so very long ago that people thought that semiconductors were part-time orchestra leaders and microchips were very, very small snack foods.

• Vice president - it has such a nice ring to it!

• Modern life is confusing - no "Ms. take" about it.

• Barbara Bush, about vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro: I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich. (Barbara Bush later apologized for calling Ferraro a witch -- October 15, 1984, New York Times)