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Geraldine Ferraro and the locked door



My plate was more than full, my family was thriving and all was right with my world — except that I longed for the excitement of the political life I’d left in Washington, D.C.

I had worked in the Capitol city for progressive women running for the U.S. House and Senate, including a snappy, smart attorney from Queens, N.Y., who was running for Congress. Geraldine Ferraro, a 40-ish mother of three, came to Washington looking for support for her first campaign in 1978. Our organization, the Women’s Campaign Fund, gave her her first sizable contribution: $1,000. We squired her around the city, booking her with potential funders and queen makers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ferraro died on Saturday at 75, after 12 years of living with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.   

But what a life she had. In the summer of 1984, Walter Mondale nominated her as his vice-presidential candidate to run with him on the Democratic Party ticket for president of the United States.

That choice opened a door that had been locked to women eyeing the nation’s highest offices since women earned the right to vote, 64 years before.  After that, my daughter — indeed, American girls and women — would now grow up presuming a woman could be considered to lead the nation. If they wanted it and worked hard enough to get it, leadership in any field — including high political office — could be theirs.

It’s hard now to imagine how extraordinary that was; many think Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi have always been powerful. Not so.

Before Ferraro’s nomination and race, no woman had been taken seriously as a presidential or vice-presidential candidate. (Can you remember the name of even one?) No woman had been Secretary of State — now there have been two, as well as a female National Security Advisor and Attorney General. Pelosi was the first woman Speaker of the U.S. House. Mary Fallin is Oklahoma’s first governor.

The night Ferraro was named a candidate for VP, the excitement at the Democratic convention was boundless. The applause went on nearly 10 minutes. Linda Wertheimer, NPR’s correspondent, began her convention broadcast late that night with these words: “It’s a girl!”  

“My God, it is,” I said to myself, as I stood backstage, holding Ferraro’s pocketbook with heart-pounding pride.

But back to my earlier job as Carpool Queen in Oklahoma City. A few months before this historic nomination, I answered a phone call from Ferraro.  

“Pammy!” she greeted me with enthusiasm.

She told me she would chair the Democrats’ Platform Committee for a few months.

“What do you think about coming to work for me in D.C.? I need help with the press about all this woman-for-VP talk. And how are David and the babies? By the way, you could commute.”

The national party had never before named a woman to lead one of its key committees, and Ferraro was hiring staff, including Susan Estrich, a political strategist I admired. (Estrich was later the first woman to run a presidential campaign.) The rumors of the possible VP nomination were like blood in the water for the media sharks. To me, it all sounded like fun.

After negotiations with my husband, I spent the next three months in D.C. working on the committee, then three more months working on the vice-presidential campaign trail. Did I know that day, balancing the phone receiver with one arm and my baby’s diaper with the other, that saying “yes” to this job would be one of the best decisions of my life? Did either of us know then that Ferraro was about to make history?  

The Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost to the popular Reagan-Bush incumbents. But Ferraro won the moment and the chapter in history, unlocking the door to the men’s club.

Goodbye, Gerry, and thanks (yes, Sarah Palin thanks you, too) for this gift to all of us.

Fleischaker, former Oklahoma Gazette associate editor, has served as a commentary writer since 1987. She authored “American Woman: Lost and Found in Oklahoma.

Three women — not just two, as written incorrectly above — have been U.S. Secretary of State. I mistakenly omitted Hon. Condoleza Rice, remembering that she served under Pres. George W. Bush as National Security Adviser, but not that she then become Secretary of State for his second term. Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton are the other two. I regret the error.

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