At one of the law firms she applied to, Geraldine Ferraro made it through five rounds of interviews before hearing a “no.” The simple and acceptable reason back then: They weren’t hiring any women that year. But as 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale said, this wife, mother, teacher and lawyer “had a lot of fire” and wasn’t about to let that stop her. Her drive led her to become the first female vice presidential nominee on a major party ticket.
Ferraro kept her mother’s surname in the public eye in her honor. Her widowed mother worked as a seamstress to make sure Geraldine went to college at a time when women were largely expected to be housewives. She became the first female in the family to receive a degree and used it to teach at PS 85 in Astoria.
Always ambitious, she eventually attained a law degree from night school and worked part-time at her husband’s firm while handling pro bono cases in family court. She served as assistant district attorney in Queens and started the Special Victims Unit, which focused on victims of sex crimes and abuse. Four years later, she became the first congresswoman from Queens and co-sponsored the Economic Equity Act, which sought to end pension discrimination amongst women.
In the 1984 election, Mondale was facing President Reagan’s popularity. Aware of the challenge, he felt that “putting a woman on a major-party ticket would change American expectations, permanently and for the better,” he wrote in “The Good Fight: A Life in Liberal Politics.”
While she fended off questions that asked if she was tough enough to push the nuclear button, the uphill battle grew steeper when the media scrutinized her husband’s questionable financial dealings. On election day, the ticket only won two states. The rest of her dynamic career included co-hosting CNN’s “Crossfire,” and serving as an ambassador to the UN Humans Rights Commission in Geneva.
In 1998 Ferraro was diagnosed with cancer, yet continued to work. Speaking as an advocate of cancer research to Congress in 2001 she said she hoped to survive long enough, “to attend the inauguration of the first female president of the United States.” Although she succumbed in 2011, and could not see this come to fruition, her career influenced a future generation of politicians. Twenty women now serve in the Senate compared to the one when she ran in 1984.
Borough President-Elect Melinda Katz - who also went through law school, has a family and works full time - says that Ferraro “proved that you can be a smart and articulate female government official who also had a family.”
When Ferraro took the stage at the 1984 convention Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan, Queens), then a young delegate, said of the night, “It was electrifying … she was a trailblazer who broke down barriers for all of us — and a mentor who helped change my life as she blazed a new path for all American women.”