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The Forgotten First Female Vice Presidential Nominee

Presidential nominee Joe Biden vowed in March that he would pick a woman to be his vice president. In August, Biden announced that he had selected California Senator Kamala Harris for the job. Once she was selected, many looked forward to the former prosecutor’s debate against Vice President Mike Pence. The vice presidential nominees had more attention on them than usual this week thanks to the vice presidential debate. 58 million people watched the Harris and Pence debate this week, which was approximately 20 million more than the debate between Kaine and Pence four years ago.

Harris is only the third woman to be selected as a vice presidential nominee on a major party ticket. In 2008, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was selected to run alongside John McCain for his presidential bid. However, the woman who paved the way for Palin and Harris to run for VP has largely been forgotten. Her name was Geraldine Ferraro, and she was the first woman ever selected to be vice president on a major party ticket.

Geraldine Ferraro was a member of the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1985. She represented New York’s 9th Congressional District in Queens and served on the House Budget Committee. Ferraro was the daughter of illiterate Italian immigrants and grew up working class. She excelled in academics as a child and earned a full scholarship to Marymount College in New York City, where she earned her B.A. in English in 1956. She then worked as a teacher during the day, but she was a law student at Fordham University at night. Ferraro married real-estate broker John Zaccaro in 1960 but kept her maiden name as a tribute to her mother. In 1974 she was appointed the assistant district attorney, where she later became the head of what was then a new unit: The Special Victims Bureau. Here, she investigated rape, abuse, and crimes against the elderly. This established SVU as a legitimate unit. She led this unit until she ran for the House and won.

Before deciding to run for president, Mondale had been a Senator from Minnesota and vice resident to Carter. When Walter Mondale entered the 1984 presidential race, he knew unseating Ronald Reagan was going to be almost impossible due to his popularity. But one thing the Reagan campaign was worried about was Reagan’s appeal to female voters- since more women had voted for Carter than for Reagan in 1980. This was the start of the “gender gap” in politics, where more women started to vote for Democratic candidates than they did Republican candidates. Mondale was still the underdog, so in an effort to energize the base, he chose Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate. However, the campaign did not just see Ferraro as a symbolic pick. She was selected so they could be real contenders. The campaign saw women as constituting 50% of the population and not just a special interest group. Mondale and Ferraro ran a liberal campaign, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and spoke out against Reagan’s economic policies.

When Ferraro spoke at the Democratic National Convention she stated, “if we can do this, we can do anything.” The crowd cheered. While women had been given the right to vote about sixty years before, there were still not that many that had prominent positions in government. There were only two women in the Senate, one female governor, and Representative Shirley Chisholm had already retired after seeking the Democratic nomination in 1972. There were several hurdles for female candidates.

The second ever vice presidential debate was between Ferraro and Bush. There was a lot of pressure going into this debate. Bush was an experienced politician. He was the current vice president, former congressman, a veteran, and former ambassador and director of the CIA. Ferraro, on the other hand, had only been a congresswoman for six years, but she did have experience as a prosecutor for several years.

When the topic was foreign policy, the debate got interesting. Ferraro expressed her concerns about the CIA’s covert actions, and Bush misinterpreted what she said and incorrectly claimed “I think I just heard Mrs. Ferraro say she would do away with all covert action… this is serious business…. But let me help you, Mrs. Ferraro, with the difference between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.”

Ferraro let him finish without interruption, and then promptly responded, “Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to ‘teach me’ about foreign policy... I’ve been a member of Congress for six years, I was there when the embassy was held hostage in Iran. I have been there, and I have seen what has happened in the past several months.” This established her as a serious contender. Many considered the debate to be a draw, but considering that many people still did not consider women to be serious candidates this was a win for Ferraro.

Reagan and Bush ended up crushing Mondale and Ferraro. The incumbents won 525 out 538 electoral votes, with the challengers’ only winning Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The Mondale campaign knew from the start that it would be an uphill battle due to Reagan’s popularity, so the loss was not a surprise. Despite the loss, Ferraro’s nomination was historic and paved the way for so many more women to run for office. There are currently 101 women in the House, 26 in the Senate, and 9 serving as Governors. While there is still a long way to go, Geraldine Ferraro showed many of these women that they could run.


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