I met Geraldine Ferraro, just once and just briefly, at a political event in January, 2008.
She looked amazingly like she had twenty-five years earlier on the platform of the Moscone Center, when she had first flitted across my 12-year old consciousness: tiny but fierce, smart but approachable. She did not look like a 72-year old woman almost a decade into a ultimately futile battle with multiple myeloma. She did look like she had a hellacious head cold, and combined with the fatigue attendant to her form of cancer, meant she couldn’t give the kind of rousing, rafter-shaking speech she clearly wanted to deliver. Her pride in Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, both as a friend and as a symbol, was palpable.
She noted that this mock convention, a decades-long tradition of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, was the first political convention she had spoken at since that night in July, 1984. To prepare, she had pulled out the 1984 convention minutes for the first time in 23 years and re-read her speech. She was surprised, she said, how many of the issues she raised back then are still being fought over today, and how apropos her most famous line: “If we can do this, we can do anything.”
In that, 2008 was proving “an embarrassment of riches,” because both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were poised to break down that ultimate political barrier. If every woman or person of color represented a “pebble thrown into a lake,” she said, the presidency was “a boulder” thrown into a pond.
That night in 1984, she recounted, many male delegates and reporters had given their floor passes to women so they could be there when her nomination was confirmed, and so she had looked down into a sea of women’s faces...excited, tearful. On the campaign trail, mothers and fathers had brought their young daughters to see her. What impact would it have on women and girls in this country to elect a female president? “It allows you the right to dream.”
Only a few weeks after this event in Virginia, Ferraro made national headlines for her comments to a small California newspaper about then-candidate Obama that were pounced on as a racist rant. (One could probably fill an entire book with the media hypocrisy on jumping on Ferraro for a point that they themselves used throughout their election coverage -- that Obama’s race played a role in catapulting him to the top of the Democratic heap, despite his relatively short career on the national political scene -- and, conversely, for pooh-pooing Ferraro’s claim in the same interview that at least some of the negative coverage of candidate Clinton was brazenly sexist.) This ended her association with the Clinton campaign and consigned her to Fox News for the remainer of the election.
Too much of the coverage of her death over the weekend has focused on the bookends of her public career: her 1984 campaign and her 2008 comments. We see her purely in terms of our own electoral politics and our national gender wars. But Geraldine Ferraro was a voice for women all around the world, and her work in the 1990s laid the groundwork for our current discussion on women’s rights.
In 1993, after seeing media reports about rape being used as a weapon of war in Bosnia, she contacted Madeline Albright to see what the Clinton Administration was going to do about it. She ended up as a member of the US delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights. That same year, she worked to bring women’s rights into the spotlight at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. The next year, as chair of the delegation, and helped push through the creation of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
She was instrumental in the planning of the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995, and as vice-chair helped push past the objections of such diverse groups as the Vatican and the government of Sudan, to maintain the U.S. “position that preserved the emphasis on universality of women’s rights for all....” This, in large part, allowed then-First Lady Hillary Clinton to assert that “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”
“I am the first to admit that were I not a woman, I would not have been the vice-presidential nominee,” Ferraro once wrote. In 2008, she noted that she had no script “and it showed at times.” That's the downside of being first into the breech. But she did it, and she did it as well as she could. She lived a good life, and whether or not we see it now, she leaves us a good legacy.