Remembering Geraldine Ferraro

“I am the first to admit that were I not a woman, I would not have been the vice-presidential nominee.”  

- Geraldine Ferraro

Geraldine Ferraro was, by nearly all accounts, an extremely complicated political figure. Although she was fervently supportive of women’s rights, her views about equal rights generally (she did not support school busing initiatives and often favored tax cuts for parochial schools over public schools) are not liberal, and her Roman Catholicism conflicted with her pro-choice views to the extent that she was vilified by the members of her church. Her statement about Obama’s race, which closely mirrors a statement she made about her own gender and the opportunity it afforded her, has been, in equal measure, either condemned as racist or scrubbed from her obituary. 

The Los Angeles Times honestly addresses the personal and political inconsistencies that plagued her ambitions and the way these have effected her legacy, as a politician and as a beacon of women’s achievement. Their obituary describes how she reconciled her pro-choice stance with her religion.

Within three years she was promoted to chief of the special victims bureau, in charge of sex crimes, child abuse, rape and domestic violence cases. It was emotionally draining work, but she won six jury trials, aided, according to a review by American Lawyer magazine, by her “straightforward eloquent approach” and “meticulous courtroom preparation.”

Her years as a prosecutor transformed her from a “small-c conservative to a liberal,” she later said. And it would lead her to adopt a supportive view of abortion that would put her in conflict with her church.

"You can force a person to have a child, but you can’t make the person love that child," Ferraro wrote, reflecting on the child abuse cases she prosecuted. "I don’t know what pain a fetus experiences, but I can well imagine the suffering of a four-year-old girl being dipped in boiling water until her skin came off and then lying in bed unattended for two days until she died. And that was only one of the cases seared in my memory."

In 1978, Ferraro formally entered politics. Running for Congress on the slogan “Finally, a tough Democrat,” she won by a 10% margin despite being snubbed by local party leaders.

The New York Times, uses an anonymous account to contrast the way Ferraro, as a Roman Catholic woman, was doggedly criticized for her pro-choice views and vilified by members of her faith.

 

The abortion issue, magnified because she was Roman Catholic and a woman, plagued her campaign. Though she opposed the procedure personally, she said, others had the right to choose for themselves. Abortion opponents hounded her at almost every stop with an intensity seldom experienced by male politicians.

Writing in The Washington Post in September 1984, the columnist Mary McGrory quoted an unnamed Roman Catholic priest as saying, “When the nuns in the fifth grade told Geraldine she would have to die for her faith, she didn’t know it would be this way.”

When someone whose achievements were undoubtedly historically powerful and undeniably relevant to women’s political advancements, do we rush to exclude the unseemly, controversial parts of her biography and painstakingly clip out the parts with which we disagree? Or can we remember her simply for what she was - a flawed political figure who is as much a product of her time as we are of ours?  

Perhaps we would have preferred that she was someone else - that all her beliefs were aligned with our beliefs - and as a result, how to we write the legacy of a woman whose achievements made her an activist of sorts, but whose views conflict with many that we, as modern activists, hold?

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