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Walter Mondale, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, announces that he has chosen Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York as his running mate. Ferraro, a daughter of Italian immigrants, had previously gained recognition as a vocal advocate of women’s rights in Congress. Ferraro became the first female vice presidential candidate to represent a major political party.
Four days after Ferraro was named vice presidential candidate, Governor Mario Cuomo of New York opened the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco with an impassioned retort to Republican President Ronald Reagan’s contention that the United States was a “shining city on a hill.” Citing widespread poverty and racial strife, Cuomo derided President Reagan as oblivious to the needs and problems of many of America’s citizens. His enthusiastic keynote address inaugurated a convention that saw Ferraro become the first woman nominated by a major party for the vice presidency. However, Mondale, the former U.S. vice president under Jimmy Carter, proved a lackluster choice for the Democratic presidential nominee.
On November 6, President Reagan and Vice President George Bush defeated the Mondale-Ferraro ticket in the greatest Republican landslide in U.S. history. The Republicans carried every state but Minnesota—Mondale’s home state.
Ferraro left Congress in 1985. In 1992 and 1998, she made unsuccessful bids for a U.S. Senate seat. During President Bill Clinton’s administration, she was a permanent member on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She died in 2011, at age 75.
READ MORE: Women's History Milestones: A Timeline
The Untold Truth Of Vice Presidential Candidate Geraldine Ferraro
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris may have made history in November 2020 by becoming the first woman to earn that title, but she isn't the first woman to try. There have been only a few women on major party tickets as vice president, including Geraldine Ferraro, who was the Democratic nominee alongside Walter Mondale in 1984. Ferraro was the first woman to have a major party backing her campaign as vice president, but ultimately, Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan, with George H.W. Bush as Reagan's vice president.
Ferraro was a born-and-raised New Yorker. She graduated from Marymount College in Manhattan, the first in her family to earn a college degree. From there, she earned her teaching license, according to The New York Times, before studying at Fordham Law School. She was one of just two women in a class of 179 and earned her law degree in 1960, passing the New York bar soon after. She split her time during her early career days between work and growing her family with husband John Zaccaro. Together they had three kids: Donna, John, and Laura.
Ferraro was elected president of the Queens County Women's Bar Association and then took up a post as an assistant district attorney. However, a passing comment from soon-to-be New York Gov. Mario Cuomo encouraged her to think about politics.
Geraldine Ferraro: Shaper of History
Geraldine Ferraro shaped history because she took a chance in the national spotlight. She gave our nation — and me — an important lesson in gender equality at just the right political moment.
Ferraro was the first woman to win a spot on the Democratic party’s presidential ticket when she became Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984.
Ferraro wasn’t the first woman to try for the highest elective offices in the land. Credit also goes to Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 became the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic party presidential nomination. Likewise, Margaret Chase Smith had previously run for the Republican presidential nomination, and dozens of other women had run on minor party tickets.
But if Ferraro wasn’t the first woman to run for national executive branch office, she surely gave a mighty shove to the “glass ceiling” by getting herself on the Democratic ticket. Her candidacy became an important rung in the political ladder for future women candidates. Among those who owe a debt to Geraldine Ferraro are vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and the many women who surely will occupy the Oval Office in my lifetime and that of my children.
That year — 1984 — I was fresh out of college, entering the workforce, and on the look-out for role models. Along came Ferraro, a savvy politician who seemed to take her equality for granted and wore her power with grace. That she was a pro-choice, Italian-American Catholic with children made her seem fearless. That she spoke out for the poor, pay equity and the environment made her seem sympathetic. Best of all, Ferraro wasn’t afraid to talk about traditionally “male” topics and correctly criticized Ronald Reagan’s many nuclear weapon expansion schemes as both foolish and dangerous.
Still, I remember thinking that Ferraro would lose — not because she was a woman, but because she was on a sinking ticket with the noble but bland Walter Mondale (who nonetheless deserves kudos for naming Ferraro as his running mate). It didn’t help that Mondale and Ferraro were up against the charismatic movie actor and incumbent President Ronald Reagan and his vice president George Bush (the elder).
At first, Ferraro’s effective campaigning helped Mondale — who had been flagging by 12 points in the polls before Ferraro helped pull the Democratic ticket into a dead heat with the incumbents. Ferraro was so effective that in the days leading up to the vice presidential debate, Team Bush team called up another woman— Second Lady of the United States Barbara Bush — to blaze an ignoble trail for her husband, which she did by publicly referring to Ferraro as, “…I can’t say it, but it rhymes with 'rich'."
Although Mrs. Bush subsequently issued an apology, the nasty remark only made Ferraro more appealing to me. Like most women of my generation, I recognized the code — a man who is smart and articulate is hailed as leader, a woman with the same skills is mocked as “rhyming with rich.”
A lot of us loved that Ferraro didn’t back down, and in the ensuing debate between Ferraro and Bush, surveys showed that men thought Bush had won, while women credited Ferraro with the victory. Within years, the book, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” became a bestseller.
The Mondale-Ferraro ticket, and ultimately Ferraro’s vice presidential aspirations, collapsed when opponents dug up that she owed back taxes (which she paid) and a public battle erupted over whether Ferraro’s husband would release his tax returns for public scrutiny. Reagan-Bush won re-election in a landslide. Ferraro went on to a distinguished career as a U.N. diplomat, journalist, and public spokesperson.
Most likely, the Mondale and Ferraro ticket never stood a chance. But Ferraro won a huge political point: that women can — must — run for the highest political offices in the land.
Women must run not only to assert our equal humanity but, more importantly, to bring to the our nation’s leadership the wisdom that comes only when every branch of government reflects the full panoply of viewpoints and life experiences. It is a lesson that goes to very core of representational self-government — a government designed to be by and for all people, women and men alike.
Thank you to Geraldine Ferraro for giving our nation an equality lesson of a lifetime.
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These unsuccessful vice presidential candidates served as the main running mate of a major party presidential candidate who competed in multiple states, or they were a major party's main vice presidential candidate in multiple states.
- * indicates that the candidate served as Vice President of the United States at some point in their career
These third party and independent candidates won at least ten percent of the electoral vote for vice president, or served as the main running mate to a third party or independent presidential candidate who won at least ten percent of the popular vote for president. 
When Walter Mondale named former New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman on a major party’s presidential ticket, TIME greeted the news with a cover story declaring it “A Historic Choice.” But running against a popular sitting president, her chances seemed slim: “The odds are firmly against Geraldine Ferraro, 48, actually becoming the first woman to stand next in line of succession to the White House,” TIME wrote then. Indeed, with little to lose by going for broke, Mondale made a calculated search for a groundbreaking candidate who would generate maximum buzz for his campaign, reviewing several female and minority candidates before choosing Ferraro — narrowly — over then-San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein. But while the choice may have been calculated, the response, as TIME reported, was unprecedented:
Even before the candidates spoke in St. Paul, Mondale’s aides were polling Democratic convention delegates and party contributors after the announcement, calls streamed in from state and party leaders all over the country. The response startled Mondale’s assistants. Said one: “The men who participated in this decision, including Mondale, had no idea how popular it would be.”
Feminists were agog. Many, even political activists, interpreted the news in intensely personal terms. Said Ann Richards, State Treasurer of Texas: “The first thing I thought of was not winning, in the political sense, but of my two daughters. To think of the numbers of young women who can now aspire to anything!” At a National Organization for Women press conference in Washington, Democratic Leader Sharon Pratt Dixon was so carried away that she started to pronounce the name of the head of the ticket as “Walter Ferra…” She corrected it to Walter Mondale amid a gale of laughter.
The Legacy Of Geraldine Ferraro
Emmert/AFP via Getty Images Ferraro ran for U.S. Senate twice and became a United Nations Human Rights Commission ambassador.
Geraldine Anne Ferraro may not have made it all the way to the White House, but her historic candidacy is still regarded as a significant milestone in terms of breaking barriers for women in U.S. politics. Ferraro paved the way for others to follow suit, a feat seen as challenging even today.
“Sixty-four years after women won the right to vote, a woman had removed the ‘men only’ sign from the White House door,” the New York Times wrote of the late congresswoman’s historic candidacy.
While there have been other women who have tried to become the first female vice president since Ferraro, it took 24 years for another woman to follow in her footsteps. In 2008, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate on the Republican ticket.
Twelve years after Palin, Sen. Kamala Harris was chosen as the VP candidate by former Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket.
Harris reached a couple of other milestones with her historic candidacy in 2020: She became the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman to receive the VP nomination from a major political party.
Despite the challenges that Geraldine Ferraro faced back in 1984, it’s undeniable that she left an impact on U.S. politics — and encouraged other women to follow their dreams of running for higher office.
As Ferraro herself once said: “Every time a woman runs, women win.”
1 “A Team Player: Can a Liberal from Archie Bunker Country Make a Contender of Walter Mondale?,” 23 July 1984, Newsweek. n.p.
2 “Congresswoman Ferraro: A Career of Rising from Nowhere,” 13 July 1984, Christian Science Monitor: 1.
3 Elisabeth Bumiller, “The Rise of Geraldine Ferraro,” 29 April 1984, Washington Post: K1.
4 Bumiller, “The Rise of Geraldine Ferraro.”
5 “Ferraro, Geraldine,” Current Biography, 1984 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1984): 119.
6 Bumiller, “The Rise of Geraldine Ferraro.”
7 Almanac of American Politics, 1984 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1983): 805–806.
8 Current Biography, 1984: 119.
9 “A Team Player: Can a Liberal from Archie Bunker Country Make a Contender of Walter Mondale?”
10 Current Biography, 1984: 119–120 “A Team Player: Can a Liberal from Archie Bunker Country Make a Contender of Walter Mondale?” Bumiller, “The Rise of Geraldine Ferraro.”
11 Current Biography, 1984 John E. Farrell, Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2001): 644 “Woman in the News: Liberal Democrat from Queens,” 13 July 1984, New York Times: A1.
12 Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
13 “Woman in the News: Liberal Democrat from Queens.”
14 Garrison Nelson et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947–1992 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993): 293–294 Barbara Delatiner, “On the Isle,” 23 Nov. 1980, New York Times: LI26.
15 “Congresswoman Ferraro: A Career of Rising from Nowhere.”
16 Hedrick Smith, “Consistent Liberal Record in the House,” 13 July 1984, New York Times: A10 Current Biography, 1984: 120.
17 The Americans for Democratic Action compiled the cited score for Ferraro’s first term in Congress. See also Current Biography, 1984: 120 “Congresswoman Ferraro: A Career of Rising from Nowhere” “Woman in the News: Liberal Democrat from Queens.”
18 “Woman in the News: Liberal Democrat from Queens.”
19 “Woman in the News: Liberal Democrat from Queens.”
20 “Ferraro: ‘I’d Quit’ If Faith, Duty Clash,” 12 September 1984 Washington Post: A8 “Woman in the News: Liberal Democrat from Queens.”
21 Quotation in Current Biography, 1984: 120. Chris Matthews, then an aide to Speaker O’Neill, reiterated Frank’s sentiments, writing in his 1988 book, Hardball, that the secret to Ferraro’s success was that, “she asked she received she became a player.” Chris Matthews, Hardball: How Politics Is Played, Told By One Who Knows the Game (New York: Perennial Library, 1988): 72.
22 “A Team Player: Can a Liberal from Archie Bunker Country Make a Contender of Walter Mondale?”
23 Current Biography, 1984: 119.
24 “Is This the Year for a Woman VP?,” 27 March 1984, Christian Science Monitor: 18.
25 “A Team Player: Can a Liberal from Archie Bunker Country Make a Contender of Walter Mondale?”
26 “A Team Player: Can a Liberal from Archie Bunker Country Make a Contender of Walter Mondale?”
27 Frank Lynn, “Carey’s Tactics Cut His Power at Convention,” 10 August 1980, New York Times: 33.
28 Current Biography, 1984: 120.
29 Bill Peterson and Alison Muscatine, “Pressure Increasing for Woman on Ticket,” 19 June 1984, Washington Post: A6 Current Biography, 1984: 119.
30 “Is This the Year for a Woman VP?”
31 Although Ferraro made history by becoming the first woman selected as the vice presidential nominee for a major party, President Gerald R. Ford considered two women as his Republican running mate in 1976: Anne Armstrong and Carla Hills. See Joseph Kraft, “Mr. Ford’s Choice,” 8 August 1976, Washington Post: 37 R. W. Apple Jr., “President Favors a Running Mate in the Middle of the Road,” 9 August 1976, New York Times: 1.
32 Farrell, Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century: 644.
33 Current Biography, 1984: 119.
34 Thomas O’Neill and William Novak, Man of the House: The Life and Times of Speaker Tip O’Neill (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987): 358 see Joan A. Lowry, Pat Schroeder: A Woman of the House (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2003): 133–134.
35 Ralph Blumenthal, “Judge Sentences Zaccaro to Work in Public Service,” 21 February 1985, New York Times: A1.
36 Elaine Woo, “Geraldine Ferraro, 1935–2011: Broke Gender Barrier as VP Pick in 1984,” 27 March 2011, Chicago Tribune: 25.
37 Jim Dwyer, “Ferraro Is Battling Blood Cancer with a Potent Ally: Thalidomide,” 19 June 2001, New York Times: B1.
38 Woo, “Geraldine Ferraro, 1935–2011: Broke Gender Barrier as VP Pick in 1984” Martin Douglas, “She Ended the Men’s Club of National Politics,” 27 March 2011, New York Times: 1.
Ferraro made her first bid for office in 1978, seeking election to the House of Representatives for the New York City’s ninth district. In her home turf of Queens, she positioned herself as a politician tough on crime and as a person who understood the struggles of the working class. Ferraro won the election and proved to be a Democrat on the rise.
During her three terms in office, Ferraro fought for women’s rights, urging the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also became a fierce opponent of President Ronald Reagan and his economic policies, objecting to possible cuts to social security and Medicare programs. Ferraro served on several committees, including the Public Works Committee and the Budget Committee. As one of the few women in Congress at the time, she became a powerful symbol to the feminist movement.
Within the Democratic Party, Ferraro evolved in one of the party’s elite members. In her second term, she was chosen to be the secretary of the Democratic Caucus, which meant that she had a role in the planning the party’s future direction and policies. In January 1984, Ferraro became the chair of the Democratic Party Platform Committee for its national convention.
The brainy student won a scholarship to Marymount College and received a law degree at Fordham University in 1960, the year she married Zaccaro and became a homemaker.
Ferraro entered public life in 1974 as an assistant district attorney in Queens. She secured the Queens House seat in 1978 and became a fierce advocate for women's rights.
She is survived by her husband three children, Donna, John Jr. and Laura and eight grandchildren.
Ferraro once fondly recalled her mother's advice in bad times: "Deal with the situation, learn from your mistakes and move on."
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Geraldine Ferraro, in full Geraldine Anne Ferraro, married name Geraldine Zaccaro, (born August 26, 1935, Newburgh, New York, U.S.—died March 26, 2011, Boston, Massachusetts), American Democratic politician who was the first woman to be nominated for vice president by a major political party in the United States as such, she served as Walter Mondale’s running mate in the 1984 presidential election.
Ferraro was the daughter of Italian immigrants. Her father died when she was eight years old. She attended Marymount College in Manhattan on a scholarship she majored in English, taking a B.A. in 1956. While teaching English in public schools in Queens, she attended Fordham University Law School at night. She earned a law degree in 1960, was admitted to the New York bar in 1961, and practiced law until 1974. She married John Zaccaro in 1960.
In 1974 Ferraro accepted a position as an assistant district attorney in the Investigations Bureau in Queens. She transferred the next year to the Special Victims Bureau, which she helped to create to handle cases of domestic violence and rape. In 1978 she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s Ninth Congressional District, running as a Democrat on a platform supporting law and order, the elderly, and neighbourhood preservation. She was reelected in 1980 and 1982.
In 1980 Ferraro was elected secretary of the Democratic caucus, and she took a seat in the House Steering and Policy Committee. She was appointed chair of the 1984 Democratic platform committee, the first woman to hold the post. Also in 1984, Democratic Party presidential candidate Walter Mondale selected Ferraro to be his running mate. The presidential bid was unsuccessful, however, as Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan.
The Education of Geraldine Ferraro
As the first female vice-presidential candidate for a major party, Ferraro -- the daughter of working-class, Italian Catholic immigrants -- quickly learned that it was her gender that counted most.
In the summer of 1984, the hot, scruffy offices that Ms. magazine occupied in New York City's garment district were abuzz with excitement. Word was that Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate for president, would choose a woman for his running mate. For years, feminists had called for just such a turn of events, with Gloria Steinem at the vanguard. We were about to have our big political moment.
I was a junior staffer at Ms. -- just a year out of college -- and I often stumbled through my days in a cloud of awe and confusion, unversed as I was in feminist theory and literature.
Just days before the election, when things were looking bleak for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, I stood at a packed rally on Seventh Avenue with my colleagues, craning my neck for a glimpse of Ferraro at the podium. The venue was symbolic: In a bid for the votes of labor, the rally took place in the garment district, playing on Ferraro's background as the daughter of a unionized garment worker. The campaign against Ferraro had been particularly brutal, and the polls were not encouraging.
In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro's nomination was a thrill for women all over the nation. But for a young feminist from a Catholic family, Ferraro's elevation to the national stage was also a point of cultural and class pride. Like Ferraro's mother, my grandmother had worked as a factory seamstress. She was the first of her family to attend college my parents earned their degrees as I was growing up.
Ethnic Catholic communities were known for their cohesion. But in the 1980 election, Republicans had managed to cleave a group of Catholics from the traditional Democratic base by playing, in the wake of the social upheavals of the 1960s and '70s, to their cultural conservatism. The new category of voter was dubbed the "Reagan Democrat," and as Reagan made his bid for a second term, the old ethnic and religious allegiances weakened further. Ferraro's rags-to-riches story as the child of Italian immigrants held no guarantee that she would win the support of this voting bloc.
In fact, to Reagan Democrats, the pro-choice, Catholic Ferraro -- a feminist who had kept her birth name after marriage, no less -- was nothing short of a traitor. John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, declared that no Catholic could vote for Ferraro in good conscience because she was pro-choice. At the time, this was a new political tack countless male politicians had escaped the same condemnation from church leaders. Given this lack of support, perhaps it should be no surprise that from her vice-presidential run, Ferraro's takeaway was that being a woman trumped all other identities.
In 1984, I lived in Weekhawken, a gritty town perched on the palisades at the edge of the Hudson River, in an apartment devised from two unused rooms in the home of an Italian-immigrant family. The first floor was divided between my flat and that of the homeowner, Mr. Facchina his daughter and her children lived upstairs. I came home one day to find that he had taped a Reagan-Bush poster to his front window. Ms. had just published Gloria Steinem's October cover story on Ferraro, so I tore off the cover and taped it to my window. The next day, Grandpapa took down his poster, and I followed suit, moving the magazine cover to an inside wall. In that truce, I found a satisfying victory.
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In my own family, the Ferraro candidacy exacerbated already simmering gender tensions. My parents, for whom watching television together is a ritual, viewed the vice-presidential debate in separate rooms.
It was at that debate that Ferraro proved her mettle. When George H.W. Bush, then running for a second term as Ronald Reagan's No. 2, appeared to talk down to Ferraro on U.S. policy in the Middle East, Ferraro landed a punch: "Let me first of all say that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy." During an October edition of Meet the Press, Marvin Kalb asked, "Ms. Ferraro, could you push the nuclear button?" Ferraro replied that she could do anything "that was necessary to protect the security of this country." A few questions later, Kalb asked if Ferraro thought she would have been selected had she not been a woman. "That's a double-edged sword," she replied. "I don't know if I were not a woman, if I'd be judged in the same way -- asked questions like, 'Are you strong enough to push the button?'"
Even the sedate New York Times struggled with the fundamentals, such as how to address the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Unlike other newspapers, the Times always precedes a person's last name with an honorific, and the paper famously resisted use of the title "Ms." long after others had accepted it. ("Ms." was a title devised by feminists, who argued that if a man's marital status had no place in his name -- after all, "Mr." applied to married and single men alike -- neither should a woman's.) Ferraro, having not taken her husband's last name, posed a problem. She was married, so the Times felt compelled to call her "Mrs. Ferraro," a title better suited to her mother.
Mondale and Ferraro lost to Reagan in a landslide, and there are still men today who blame Ferraro for the loss. But the truth is, Mondale never had a prayer against Reagan, and Ferraro would likely not have been chosen if he had. She was a less than perfect candidate, mostly on account of her husband's questionable business dealings, but she played her part with aplomb, and it remains a stain on the Democratic soul that no woman has since -- in a span of 24 years -- been named for a vice-presidential slot. Although I understand the calculus that likely led the Obama team to conclude that choosing a woman as a running mate perhaps one "first" too many, I believe Obama would have won regardless of the gender of his veep.
I wish my Geraldine Ferraro story could conclude as no more than an appreciation of heroism on behalf of women, especially Catholic women and working-class women. But sometimes you find that when someone represents what you'd like to think of as the best in your community -- in this case, the strong, ambitious, crusading Catholic woman of immigrant stock -- they come with its less laudable attributes. In 2008, Ferraro laid bare the racial resentment that lingers in our common culture.
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She was backing Hillary Clinton in her primary race against Barack Obama, who was closing in on the nomination.
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," Ferraro told a California newspaper. "And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
The remarks were controversial, and the Obama campaign made great hay of them. Ferraro could have said, "Hey, look, I know how this works -- had I not been a woman at the right place and the right time in 1984, I wouldn't have been the vice-presidential candidate. I'm just observing the dynamics of the times."
But that's not what she did. "Every time that campaign is upset about something, they call it racist," she told The New York Times. "I will not be discriminated against because I'm white. If they think they're going to shut up Geraldine Ferraro with that kind of stuff, they don't know me."
Ferraro's comments seared me because they were the sort of grousing I'd heard all my life, and had once half-believed myself -- that blacks who achieved great things did so because they'd been given some special advantage not available to "hard-working" whites.
For me, the 2008 presidential election was already fraught with a sense of divided loyalty. I still want, with all my heart, to see a woman president in my lifetime. But at a particularly precarious moment in the nation's history, I really saw Barack Obama as the preferable candidate (for reasons that haven't completely panned out, I might add). To hear the venom of racial resentment pour forth from not just a hero but a hero with whom I identified thrust in my face an ugly truth about the tensions that continue to plague progressive politics today.
That said, the legacy of Geraldine Ferraro encompasses much more than those remarks, and far more than the story of a single campaign. She was the first to model for us what a presidential woman could look like and sound like -- how she could spar with male detractors and triumph in the moment. And she offered a way of re-envisioning feminist politics.
Once I was tasked with interviewing Ferraro about a very specific change being proposed to Social Security and had to ask the generic question, "Why is Social Security a woman's issue?"
She replied with the requisite statistics on women's paltry post-retirement income and the numbers of women who would fall into poverty without it. "But you know, Addie, every issue is a women's issue." For Geraldine Ferraro, there was no greater truth.
Adele M. Stan
Adele M. Stan is a columnist for The American Prospect. She is editor of Right Wing Watch, and a winner of the Hillman Prize for Opinion & Analysis Journalism.