A look back to when Geraldine Ferraro was on the Democratic ticket in 1984 can tell a lot about how the country has changed — and how it has not.
The scenes blend like images from a kaleidoscope. A woman, blond, jubilant in a white dress, shown magnified on a convention center screen in San Francisco. It is Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 accepting the Democratic nomination that made her the first woman in the nation to be tapped by a major party to run for vice president.
Turn the lens. A woman, blond, in a white tunic, smiling, arms thrown wide in New York last week. It’s Hillary Clinton claiming the Democratic nomination, the first woman to become the presidential standard-bearer for a major party.
There are those who say that a woman running for president was inevitable, that the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling that Clinton talks about are just time moving on. There are the sighs that Clinton is the wrong woman, the unexciting woman, the compromising woman. And there are those who say they could never vote for a Democrat, particularly this one.
But it took 32 years to get from one scene to the other, so a look back to the Ferraro campaign can show how the country has changed, and how it has not.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- As thousands of athletes get coronavirus tests, nurses wonder: What about us?
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- That Mysterious Monolith in the Utah Desert? It’s Gone, Officials Say
- Trump administration moves ahead on gutting bird protections
- Two-dose coronavirus vaccine regimens will make it harder to inoculate America
It may be hard to remember how few women there were in public life when Ferraro told cheering Democrats, “If we can do this, we can do anything.” The Democrats had no female senators. (The Republicans had two.) There was one female governor: Martha Layne Collins of Kentucky, a Democrat. Dianne Feinstein was still the mayor of San Francisco, yet to start her long Senate career. Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 1972 as the first major-party African-American candidate for president, had retired.
Women have since become the majority in colleges, and women in both parties have made a steady march forward in politics. Some are senators and governors and three have been secretary of state, making the idea of a woman at the helm of the nation seem far less revolutionary.
Ferraro was quizzed relentlessly about arms control and about whether she could even be credible as the commander in chief should she have to step up and be president. Could a woman be trusted with the nuclear button?
With her background as secretary of state, Clinton is not questioned about her toughness. Instead, the left asks whether she might be too quick to seek military intervention and the right critiques her judgment. She is the one now asking whether Donald Trump’s finger should be anywhere near the nuclear button.
In other ways, things have changed less. As Clinton, Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina can attest, female candidates are still examined not only for competence, character and policy, but for the way they look, the tone of their voice and the state of their marriages.
For Ferraro, it was the tangled financial dealings of her husband, John Zaccaro, his subsidy of her first congressional campaign, and her back and forth on whether she would release his tax returns, which she tried to brush off with the damaging quip, “You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it’s like.”
Now Trump promises to keep the Clinton marriage, and the former president’s infamous infidelities, in the spotlight. Hillary Clinton time and again had to help save her husband’s candidacy and presidency, tarnishing her feminist credentials for some. (“I’m not sitting here — some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said way back in 1992, when his run for president nearly foundered. “I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together.”)
On the campaign trail
As a reporter for Newsday, I watched the euphoric, rapturous crowds, mostly women and girls who showed up with “To Gerry with Love” signs, even in the campaign’s last days, when it was going down to a decisive defeat to President Reagan and George Bush. Some campaign bands could make you wince, playing “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” or “Hello, Dolly!”
There were the strange male missteps: the mayor of Los Angeles saying he wanted “a vice president I can hug,” the Mississippi official who called Ferraro “young lady” and asked whether she could bake a blueberry muffin. The grim drumbeat about her husband’s finances, his real estate dealings and his tax returns. There was the constant watch for weakness: Would the woman cry?
It is easy to forget those moments these days, when women in power don’t seem so unusual. If you have a long memory you have watched other women on the national stage, too. Rep. Patricia Schroeder explored a Democratic race in 1987, after Gary Hart stood down. Sen. Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the Republican presidential race in October 1999 before any of the primaries. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun ran in the Democratic primaries in 2004. Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska became the first Republican woman nominated for the vice presidency in 2008. And we have been watching Clinton for so long that it can feel like we know everything about her.
But in the 1980s the quest to put a woman in the White House started as a cause without a candidate. It was driven by women’s groups and by numbers. Suddenly, it was significant that more women than men registered to vote and that women seemed more likely to vote.
The Equal Rights Amendment had collapsed, failing to win the required ratification of three-fourths of the states. Politically active women in the feminist movement, including Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, wrote a manifesto to the Democratic candidates for president in 1983 warning them to agree on an agenda for issues affecting women or face the possibility of women staying home on Election Day: “We will not hold still to be treated as an afterthought, a side issue, or a powerless constituency that can be betrayed without consequences.” By 1984, they were fighting to get a woman on the ticket.
When Walter Mondale selected Ferraro as his running mate, she was a three-term congresswoman from Queens. She came from New York, which had unexpectedly swung to Ronald Reagan in his 1980 landslide. Speaker Tip O’Neill was a mentor and proponent. She was pretty, married, 48 years old and traditional enough that party leaders thought she might not alienate male voters. She was also an attorney who had worked as a prosecutor.
“What is different,” says Ann Lewis, a longtime Democratic activist, “is that Hillary Clinton in the last 20-25 years has achieved national stature in ways that too few women have. Gerry Ferraro is nominated in 1984 and she is almost unknown. It isn’t until 1986 that Barbara Mikulski becomes the first Democratic woman who makes it to the Senate in her own right.”
Looking back, was the scrutiny of Ferraro, who died in 2011, fair game or driven by discomfort with the idea of a woman as vice president? Ferraro’s campaign manager, John Sasso, calls it some of both. “Experience matters,” he said, noting that because Clinton has the deep résumé that Ferraro lacked, she will run and face a very different campaign.
This time the first woman is at the top of the ticket, calling all the shots. “She’s been on the front lines of this process for a very long time,” said Lissa Muscatine, a friend and former speechwriter for Clinton.
Clinton’s detractors look dimly on appeals to support her as a pathbreaker. “I’m not a huge fan of identity politics and this is sort of the apotheosis of identity politics,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign- and defense-policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Basically, to me Hillary Clinton is saying: ‘I wasn’t good enough to get here on my own. Forget that people voted for me on the merits, they voted for me because I was a woman.’ How demeaning is that?”
On Friday, Fiorina, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination this year, told a crowd, “Hillary Clinton, news flash. I’m a feminist and I’m not voting for you.”
Maybe Hillary Clinton is right — that she has become our national Rorschach test. Do you admire her perseverance? Dislike her compromises? Seek more passion? Question her honesty? Ponder her marriage? Love her policies? Hate her policies? Debate whether she is a feminist? Debate whether it matters? For one night last week, it was hard to deny her words: “Tonight caps an amazing journey — a long, long journey.”