Geraldine Ferraro: First Female Democratic VP Candidate

Dem VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro conceding the election
Dem VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro, surrounded by her family.

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Geraldine Anne Ferraro was a lawyer who served in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1984, she broke tradition by entering national politics, running for vice president under presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Making her entrance on the Democratic Party ticket, Ferraro was the first woman to run on a national ballot for a major political party.

Fast Facts: Geraldine Ferraro

  • Full Name: Geraldine Anne Ferraro
  • Known For: First woman to run for a national office on a major political party ticket
  • Born: August 26, 1935 in Newburgh, NY
  • Died: March 26, 2011 in Boston, MA
  • Parents: Antonetta and Dominick Ferraro
  • Spouse: John Zaccaro
  • Children: Donna Zaccaro, John Jr. Zaccaro, Laura Zaccaro
  • Education: Marymount Manhattan College, Fordham University
  • Key Accomplishments: Worked as a civil lawyer and assistant district attorney, elected to the US House of Representatives, ambassador to United Nations Commission Human Rights, political commentator

Early Years

Geraldine Anne Ferraro was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1935. Her father Dominick was an Italian immigrant, and her mother, Antonetta Ferraro, was a first generation Italian. Dominick passed away when Geraldine was eight, and Antonetta moved the family to the South Bronx so she could work in the garment industry. The South Bronx was a low-income area, and like many Italian children in New York City, Geraldine attended a Catholic school, where she was a successful student.

Geraldine Ferraro and family
CIRCA 1984: John Zaccar, Vice Presidential Hopeful Geraldine Ferraro and daughters circa 1984 in New York.  Sonia Moskowitz / Getty Images

Thanks to income from her family's rental property, she was eventually able to move to the parochial Marymount Academy in Tarrytown, where she lived as a boarder. She excelled academically, skipped seventh grade, and was perpetually on the honor roll. After graduating from Marymount, she was awarded a scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College. The scholarship wasn't always enough; Ferraro usually worked two part-time jobs while attending school to help pay for tuition and board.

While in college, she met John Zaccaro, who would eventually become her husband and father of her three children. In 1956, she graduated from college and became certified to work as a public school teacher.

Legal Career

Not content with working as a teacher, Ferraro decided to go to law school. She took classes at night while working full time teaching second grade during the day, and passed the bar exam in 1961. Zaccaro ran a successful real estate venture, and Ferraro began working as a civil lawyer for his company; after they married she kept her maiden name to use professionally.

Geraldine Ferraro Posing For A Photo
Santi Visalli / Getty Images

In addition to working for Zaccaro, Ferraro did some pro bono work and began making contacts with various members of the Democratic Party in New York City. In 1974, she was appointed the assistant district attorney of Queens County, and was assigned to work in the Special Victims Bureau, where she prosecuted cases of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. Within a few years, she was head of that unit, and in 1978 she was admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar.

Ferraro found her work with abused children and other victims to be emotionally draining, and decided it was time to move on. A friend in the Democratic Party convinced her that it was time to leverage her reputation as a tough prosecutor, and run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Politics

In 1978, Ferraro ran for the local seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, on a platform in which she declared she would continue to be tough on crime, and support the tradition of Queens' many diverse neighborhoods. She rose rapidly within the party ranks, earning respect and gaining influence through her work on a number of prominent committees. She was popular with her own constituents as well, and made good on her campaign promises to revitalize Queens and enact programs that would benefit neighborhoods.

Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro Speaking
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During her time in Congress, Ferraro worked on environmental legislation, was involved in foreign policy discussions, and focused on the issues faced by elderly women through her work with the House Select Committee on Aging. Voters reelected her twice, in 1980 and 1982.

Run for the White House

In summer 1984, the Democratic Party was preparing for the next presidential election. Senator Walter Mondale was emerging as the likely nominee, and liked the idea of selecting a woman as his running mate. Two of his five potential vice presidential candidates were female; in addition to Ferraro, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein was a possibility.

The Mondale team selected Ferraro as their candidate's running mate, hoping to not only mobilize female voters, but also to attract more ethnic voters from New York City and the Northeast, an area that had traditionally voted Republican. On July 19, the Democratic Party announced that Ferraro would run on Mondale's ticket, making her the first woman to run for national office on a major party's ballot, as well as the first Italian American.

She was... ideal for television: a down-to-earth, streaked-blond, peanut-butter-sandwich-making mother whose personal story resonated powerfully. Brought up by a single mother who had crocheted beads on wedding dresses to send her daughter to good schools, Ms. Ferraro had waited until her own children were school age before going to work in a Queens district attorney’s office headed by a cousin.
Geraldine Ferraro and the American Flag
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Over the coming months, the novelty of a female candidate soon gave way as journalists began asking Ferraro focused questions about her stance on hot-button issues like foreign policy, nuclear strategy, and national security. By August, questions had been raised about Ferraro's family's finances; in particular, Zaccaro's tax returns, which had not been released to congressional committees. When Zaccaro's tax information was finally made public, it showed that there was in fact no deliberate financial wrongdoing, but the delay in disclosure harmed Ferraro's reputation.

Throughout the entire campaign, she was questioned about matters that were never brought up to her male opponent. The majority of newspaper articles about her included language that questioned her womanhood and femininity. In October, Ferraro took to the stage for a debate against Vice President George H.W. Bush.

On November 6, 1984, Mondale and Ferraro were defeated by a landslide, with just 41% of the popular vote. Their opponents, Ronald Reagan and Bush, won every state's electoral votes, except for the District of Columbia and Mondale's home state of Minnesota.

Following the loss, Ferraro ran for Senate a couple of times and lost, but soon found her niche as a successful business consultant and political commentator on CNN's Crossfire, and also served as ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission during Bill Clinton's administration. In 1998, she was diagnosed with cancer, and underwent treatment with thalidomide. After battling the disease for a dozen years, she passed away in March 2011.

Sources

  • Glass, Andrew. “Ferraro Joins Democratic Ticket July 12, 1984.” POLITICO, 12 July 2007, www.politico.com/story/2007/07/ferraro-joins-democratic-ticket-july-12-1984-004891.
  • Goodman, Ellen. “Geraldine Ferraro: This Friend Was a Fighter.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 Mar. 2011, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/geraldine-ferraro-this-friend-was-a-fighter/2011/03/28/AF5VCCpB_story.html?utm_term=.6319f3f2a3e0.
  • Martin, Douglas. “She Ended the Men's Club of National Politics.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/03/27/us/politics/27geraldine-ferraro.html.
  • “Mondale: Geraldine Ferraro Was a 'Gutsy Pioneer'.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 Mar. 2011, www.cnn.com/2011/POLITICS/03/26/obit.geraldine.ferraro/index.html.
  • Perlez, Jane. “Democrat, Peacemaker: Geraldine Anne Ferraro.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Apr. 1984, www.nytimes.com/1984/04/10/us/woman-in-the-news-democrat-peacemaker-geraldine-anne-ferraro.html.