Geraldine Ferraro’s Mixed Legacy

I begin this essay keenly aware of the fact that, before the end, I am probably going to strike a nerve with someone.  A part of me feels that I ought to keep some of these thoughts to myself out of respect for the recently deceased.  In ordinary circumstances, I would.  But in today’s news cycle, sandwiched as the story is between a war in Libya and a nuclear disaster in Japan, if I don’t speak my mind now, I’ll likely not get a second chance.  So I might as well say my peace.

The traditional print media pattern after someone famous has died is first to lionize them for their crowning achievements.  A day or so later, extended biographical sketches begin to emerge, and a few opinionated columnists chime in to either bury him or her or to praise him or her.  Here then is my own perspective, for what it’s worth.  By all means, celebrate Geraldine Ferraro for how history will likely always remember her, as the first female Vice-Presidential candidate of a major party.  The first female politician to be plucked from relative obscurity to round out a ticket, one could easily argue that without Geraldine Ferraro there would have been no Hillary Clinton, or, for that matter, Sarah Palin.  She herself would have agreed with that sentiment and did during her lifetime.

It is also true that Ferraro, like Clinton and Palin, found herself the frequent target of unfounded sexist, patriarchal criticism during the Presidential campaign.  The proudly Italian-American Representative from Queens, New York, often overshadowed the man running at the head of the ticket, soft-spoken Walter Mondale of Minnesota.  She was put on the spot in television interviews, even asked point-blank whether or not any woman was tough enough to be Vice-President.  One question even suggested that the Soviet Union might somehow take advantage of the very existence of a female Vice-President, which also questioned her strength and mettle.

Most of these questions would now no longer be voiced to any female candidate, regardless of office.  Allegations regarding her husband’s finances, for whatever reason they may have been brought up, nonetheless damaged the strength of the Democratic ticket, and muted whatever bounce in the polls might have been otherwise achieved.  In fairness, though, defeating a popular incumbent President named Ronald Reagan would have been difficult in any circumstance, if not altogether impossible.  

Beyond her glass ceiling-shattering achievement, the former Congresswoman’s legacy will always be scarred and dubious to many, myself included.  Extremely ill-timed and offensive comments made during the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary revealed a bitterness prevalent among some older women, feminists, and Hillary Clinton supporters.  The more extreme elements resurfaced by the end of the primary as PUMA’s, but Ferraro’s views were more common than any fringe media curiosity.  To them, Barack Obama’s skin color gave him a pass in the media, the election, and the court of public opinion.  These statements and her unrepentant interviews afterwards will always make it difficult for me to give her the benefit of the doubt, even in death.

The borderline racist, resentful sentiment behind the remarks are only part of the story.  To me, they are highly indicative of the kind of entitled, navel-gazing, smug, self-congratulatory attitudes that too often are found in Second-Wave Feminism.  A movement that accomplished much for women’s rights and gender equality, and deserves all the credit in the world for the achievement, still contained and still contains some notable and glaring blind spots.  It never truly looked beyond the perspectives of educated, affluent white women.

Gender inequality is not merely a problem for the white, the middle class, the educated, and the heterosexual.  I fault the movement primarily for completely ignoring the valid concerns and input of women of color, the poor, and the working class.  Had it done so, offensive remarks like Ferraro’s would have never been uttered, and efforts to transform the Obama/Clinton race into the Oppression Olympics would never been attempted in the first place.      

Still, no one would ever doubt Ferraro for her toughness.  Her life as a groundbreaking female politician is proof of that and even I grant her that much.  This is also true as concerns her personal life.  Geraldine Ferraro beat all expectations, living with blood cancer for over a decade when initially expected to perish within three to five years.  Though her political career was quixotic, ultimately full of spectacular defeats and few victories, she gave it all that she had.

And if recent history is any indication, a woman will sooner than later head the ticket of a major political party’s candidate for President of the United States.  Whomever she is, she will owe a notable debt to Geraldine Ferraro.  And as one column draws to a close, in the same fashion as the life it summarizes, one hopes we can all learn from our stars, in both their successes and their shortcomings.


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