Geraldine Ferraro

Sixty-four years after American women won the right to vote Geraldine Ferraro (born 1935) became the first woman candidate for the vice presidency of a major political party. She had previously served three consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Geraldine Ferraro was born on August 26, 1935. She was the third child of Dominick and Antonetta Ferraro. The Ferraro's had only one surviving son, Carl, at the time of Geraldine's birth—the other, Gerard, had been killed in a family automobile accident two years earlier. Dominick Ferraro, an Italian immigrant, operated a night club in Newburgh, a small city north of New York City reputed to be wide-open to organized crime.

In 1944, when Ferraro was eight years old, her father was arrested and charged with operating a numbers racket. He died of a heart attack the day he was to appear for trial. The Ferraro family was forced to move, first to the Bronx, and then to a working-class neighborhood in Queens. Here Antonetta Ferraro worked in the garment industry, crocheting beads on wedding dresses and evening gowns in order to support herself and her children.

As a young girl Ferraro attended Marymount School in Tarrytown, New York. She consistently excelled at school, skipping from the sixth to the eighth grade and graduating from high school at 16. She won a full scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College, where she was the editor of the school newspaper. While still at Marymount Ferraro also took education courses at Hunter College. In this way she prepared herself to teach English in the New York City Public School system after she graduated college. While teaching, Ferraro attended Fordham University's evening law classes. She received her law degree in 1960. The week she passed the bar exam she married John Zaccaro, an old sweetheart, but kept her maiden name in honor of her mother.


Attorney and Congresswoman

From 1961 to 1974 Ferraro practiced law, had her three children—Donna, John Jr., and Laura—and worked in her husband's real estate business. In 1974, with her youngest child in the second grade, Ferraro agreed to serve as an assistant district attorney in Queens County. As an assistant DA, she created two special units, the Special Victims Bureau and the Confidential Unit. As chief of these units, Ferraro specialized in trying cases involving sex crimes, crimes against the elderly, family violence, and child abuse. From 1974 to 1978 she also served on the Advisory Council for the Housing Court of the City of New York and as president of the Queens County Women's Bar Association.

In 1978 Ferraro decided to run for Congress. In the primary campaign, in an intensely ethnic area of Queens, she faced Thomas Manton, an Irish city councilman, and Patrick Deignan, an Irish district leader. Outspending both opponents, Geraldine Ferraro won the nomination. Against a conservative Republican in the general election Ferraro chose to wage a campaign stressing law and order. Her slogan, "Finally, a Tough Democrat," appealed to voters, and she was elected with 54 percent of the vote.

In Congress Ferraro balanced the conservative demands of her constituency with her own feminist and liberal politics. She voted, for example, against school busing and supported tax credits for private and parochial school parents. Yet she was also a prime mover in opposing economic discrimination against housewives and working women. Ferraro easily won her re-election in 1980 and 1982 and was elected secretary of the Democratic Caucus in her second term. As secretary, she sat on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

In 1982 she received an appointment to the powerful House Budget Committee, which sets national spending priorities. In the House she also served as a member of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Coming from a district with two major airports close by, Ferraro was a strong advocate of air safety and noise control. As a member of the Select Committee on Aging she worked to combat crimes against the elderly and to expand health care and provide senior citizen centers. As a member of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues Ferraro helped lead the successful battle for passage of the Economic Equity Act and the unsuccessful campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. She was the author of those sections of the Equity Act dealing with private pension reform and expanding retirement savings options for the elderly.


A Leader in the Democratic Party

Ferraro continued her active role within the Democratic Party. She served as a delegate to the Democratic Party's 1982 mid-term convention and was a key member of the Hunt Commission, which developed delegate selection rules for the 1984 convention. Then, in January of 1984, Ferraro was named chair of the Democratic Party Platform Committee for the 1984 national convention.

During the years between the mid-term convention and the national convention Ferraro worked hard to achieve national recognition and to correct any impression that she lacked real foreign policy experience and expertise. In 1983 she travelled to Central America and to the Middle East, and, as nomination time approached, she talked frequently about these trips and about her other international experience, including her membership in congressional groups on United States-Soviet relations.

After a grueling series of interviews—climaxing perhaps the most thorough vice-presidential search in history—Geraldine Ferraro was chosen by Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale as his running-mate. Thus, 64 years to the day that American women won the right to vote, the first woman candidate for the vice presidency was named by a major party.


The 1984 Campaign

Politically, Ferraro was seen to have several assets as a candidate. Democrats hoped that she would help to exploit the gender gap—that is, the clear difference in voting patterns between men and women that seemed to have emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, with women voting in greater numbers than men and voting for Democratic candidates and peace issues more consistently than men. A national poll taken in July of 1984 had reported that men favored Reagan 58 percent to 36 percent, but that women favored Mondale 49 percent to 41 percent. Widespread efforts on the part of organized feminists to register large numbers of new women voters also promised to widen the gender gap and increase the value of a woman candidate. Ferraro was also politically appealing as a candidate from a strong working-class and ethnic background and district. Democratic strategists felt it was essential for Mondale to win among such voters.

President Reagan's popularity with the voters, however, resulted in a solid re-election victory. Reagan-Bush received 59 percent of the popular vote and 525 of the 538 electoral votes; Mondale-Ferraro received only 41 percent of the popular vote and 13 electoral votes (Minnesota and the District of Columbia). Mondale was hurt most by his perceived ties to "special interests," his plan to raise taxes, and his lack of a clearly defined economic program. Ferraro's chief problem as a candidate was the investigation of her husband John Zaccaro's real estate business and tax records, begun during the campaign months.

The gender gap had not made the difference that the Democrats had hoped. Although women voted for the Democratic ticket in slightly larger numbers than men, the difference had fallen to 4.5 percentage points in 1984, from 8.5 percentage points in 1980. Instead, in one of the most polarized elections in the history of the United States, the vote split first along racial lines, with Blacks voting 91 to 9 percent for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket and whites voting 66 to 34 percent for Reagan-Bush, and secondly, along economic lines, with those making under $12,500 voting for Mondale-Ferraro 53 to 46 percent, and those in the over $35,000 range voting for Reagan-Bush 67 to 31.5 percent.


Keeping the Liberal Faith

After Ferraro's term as a congresswoman expired in January of 1985, she wrote a book about the vice-presidential campaign. For a time, she chose to to keep a low political profile. In 1986, she passed up the opportunity to challenge Alphonse D'Amato, the incumbent Republican senator from New York. Still under public scrutiny her husband pleaded guilty to overstating his net worth in getting a loan and was sentenced to community service. Also, police affidavits surfaced detailing a 1985 meeting between Zacarro and Robert DiBernardo, a captain and porno kingpin for mob boss John Gambino. Later, Ferraro's son John, a college student, was arrested for possessing cocaine.

In 1990 Ferraro campaigned aggressively on behalf of female Democratic candidates in New York. She launched her own political comeback in 1992, when she entered the New York Democratic primary as a candidate for the Untied States Senate. Competing against three other candidates in the primary, including New York state comptroller and former congressional representative Elizabeth Holtzman, Ferraro faced a tough battle. Typically optimistic to the end, Ferraro finished second, fewer than 10,000 votes behind Holtzman, who ultimately was defeated in the general election.

Undaunted, Ferraro tested support for possible campaigns for mayor of New York City in 1997 or for Senator or governor of New York in 1998. Meanwhile, she remains true to her Liberal faith and continues to speak out for Liberal policies. In 1993, she published a book demanding more power for women. Beginning in 1996, she appeared every other week on "Crossfire," a half-hour political talk show on Cable News Network—the same show that made Pat Buchanan nationally famous. Occupying the liberal chair opposite John Sununu, President Bush's Chief of Staff, Geraldine Ferraro continued to press for increased government spending and more federal programs on behalf of those she considers "underprivileged."


Further Reading on Geraldine Ferraro

Most of the written work on Ferraro is in the popular press. Articles appeared in US News and World Report on July 16 and 23, 1984; Time on June 4, 1984; MS for July 1984; New York Magazine on July 16, 1984; Working Woman for October 1984; and McCall's for October 1984. In 1985 she wrote, with Linda Bird Francke, Ferraro: My Story (Bantam Books), which was favorably reviewed.

Geraldine, Ferraro Changing History: Women, Power, and Politics (Moyer Bell, 1993). Lee Michael Katz, My name is Geraldine Ferraro: An Unauthorized biography. (New American Library, 1984). Eugene Larson, "Geraldine Ferraro," Great Lives from History, Frank N. Magill ed. Vol. 2. (Salem Press, 1995). Jan Russell, "Geraldine Ferraro" Working Woman, November 1996, pages 28-31. Linda Witt, Karen M. Paget, and Glenna Matthews. Running as a Woman; Gender and Power in American Politics (Free Press, 1993).