Who Was Geraldine Ferraro?
Geraldine A. Ferraro worked as an assistant district attorney before being elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978. Ferraro was the first woman to chair her party's 1984 platform committee and the first female vice presidential nominee, running with Walter Mondale. She later worked for the United Nations and with Hillary Clinton.
Early Life and Education
Ferraro was born on August 26, 1935, in Newburgh, New York. From a working-class Italian American background, she lost her father when she was only eight years old. Her mother moved with Ferraro and her brother to the South Bronx where she worked as a seamstress.
After attending the Marymount School, Ferraro went to Marymount Manhattan College at the age of 16 on a scholarship. She graduated in 1956 and soon after became a teacher in the New York City public school system. Interested in a legal career, Ferraro took night classes at Fordham University where she earned her law degree in 1960.
That same year, Ferraro married realtor John Zaccaro. The couple had three children, Donna, John Jr., and Laura. While her children were young, she worked in private practice. In 1974, Ferraro began her career in public service, becoming an assistant district attorney in Queens County. One of her most notable contributions to district attorney’s office was creating the special victims bureau, which prosecuted a variety of cases involving crimes against children and the elderly as well as sexual offenses and domestic abuse.
Ferraro made her first bid for office in 1978, seeking election to the House of Representatives for the New York City’s ninth district. In her home turf of Queens, she positioned herself as a politician tough on crime and as a person who understood the struggles of the working class. Ferraro won the election and proved to be a Democrat on the rise.
During her three terms in office, Ferraro fought for women’s rights, urging the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also became a fierce opponent of President Ronald Reagan and his economic policies, objecting to possible cuts to social security and Medicare programs. Ferraro served on several committees, including the Public Works Committee and the Budget Committee. As one of the few women in Congress at the time, she became a powerful symbol to the feminist movement.
Within the Democratic Party, Ferraro evolved in one of the party’s elite members. In her second term, she was chosen to be the secretary of the Democratic Caucus, which meant that she had a role in the planning the party’s future direction and policies. In January 1984, Ferraro became the chair of the Democratic Party Platform Committee for its national convention.
Vice Presidential Candidate
Later that year, Ferraro was mentioned as a possible running mate for Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential candidate. Mondale had served as vice president under President Jimmy Carter and was very cautious in making his selection. He eventually decided to pick Ferraro, who became the first woman to receive the vice presidential nomination from either of the country's two major parties. Mondale and Ferraro made an interesting pair — he was a Midwesterner, and she was a Roman Catholic and a New Yorker.
On the campaign trail, Ferraro was a skilled public speaker, and she usually met with sizable crowds wherever she went. But both she and Mondale were in for a tough fight against the popular incumbents, President Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. Their cause was not helped when allegations of financial misconduct by Ferraro arose; there were questions about how her first congressional campaign was funded, and then more stories cropped up about her husband when he initially refused to disclose his tax returns. While all related documents were eventually released, the speculation about Ferraro and her husband somewhat tarnished her reputation.
As many had predicted, the Reagan-Bush ticket easily won re-election. Ferraro finished the remainder of her term in the House, leaving office in 1985. She wrote a campaign memoir soon after, Ferraro, My Story (1985).
Controversial Comments and Later Years
In her later years, Ferraro remained active in politics. She served as an alternate delegate to the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission by President Bill Clinton in 1994. She also co-hosted CNN's political talk show Crossfire from 1996 to 1998. Working in the private sector, Ferraro served as a partner in the CEO Perspective Group and later chaired the Global Consulting Group's public affairs practice. In 2007, she became a principal with Blank Rome Government Relations LLC, counseling clients on various public policy issues.
In 2008, Ferraro found herself in the middle of a media frenzy. Working as a fundraiser for Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, Ferraro told the Torrance, California newspaper the Daily Breeze that the frontrunner status of Clinton's opponent, Senator Barack Obama, could be attributed to his race. During the interview, she stated, "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."
Ferraro later defended her comments on Good Morning America. Talking with journalist Diane Sawyer, she said that her comments had been taken out of context by the Daily Breeze and that she was "hurt, absolutely hurt, by how they have taken this thing and spun it to sort of imply in any way, in any way, I am a racist."
Ferraro died on March 26, 2011, at the age of 75, in Boston, Massachusetts. In a statement released shortly after her death, her family said, "Geraldine Anne Ferraro Zaccaro was widely known as a leader, a fighter for justice, and a tireless advocate for those without a voice. To us, she was a wife, mother, grandmother and aunt, a woman devoted to and deeply loved by her family. Her courage and generosity of spirit throughout her life waging battles big and small, public and personal, will never be forgotten and will be sorely missed."
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