Let me say a few words about Geraldine Ferraro, who died over the weekend at age 75. Her political career by some standards was not hugely successful: she was elected to the House for three terms from a culturally conservative Democratic district in Queens; the ticket on which she was the vice presidential nominee lost the popular vote 59%-40% and carried one state and the District of Columbia; she twice lost Democratic primaries for Senate seats, 37%-36% to Robert Abrams in 1992 and 51%-26% to Charles Schumer in 1998. In her six years in the House she was a backbencher without major legislative accomplishments.
Yet I think she did make a significant contribution to our political life, as an example of someone who successfully took the mommy track (see Virginia Postrel’s article thereon and then proceeded to perform well on the national political stage. The Democrats who nominated her had no right to expect that she, with six years in the House and experience as a domestic affairs lawyer in the Queens district attorney’s office, could go toe to toe and hold her own in a vice presidential debate with George H. W. Bush, who had been CIA director, ambassador to China and incumbent vice president for four years. But she did. Ben Heineman, Carter administration appointee and later general counsel at General Electric, helped prepare her for the debate and has a lovely article in the online Atlantic on his experience.
I knew Geraldine Ferraro fairly well and always liked her; off the stage she had the same spunky, good-humored persona you saw in public appearances. I remember going out to her neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens, when she was on the short list for Walter Mondale’s VP nomination—an affluent corner of large single-family houses amid the welter of high-rises lining Queens Boulevard. I admire her as I do a set of women who were on the mommy track for a significant portion of their adult lives and then entered public affairs and did very well—better than their resumes would have suggested. It’s an interesting list, and I suspect some of those on it would not appreciate being grouped with some of the others: Katharine Graham and Phyllis Schlafly, Madeleine Albright and Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi and (perhaps) Michele Bachmann. How did they muster the resources to do so well? Perhaps the experience of being a full-time mother and supervising a household does more to strengthen one’s character and sharpen one’s intellect than accumulating the professional credentials which we tend to see as indispensable qualifications for positions of responsibility in politics and public affairs.
Geraldine Ferraro’s family has had its troubles just as she had her political disappointments. But she kept on keeping on, having earned the satisfaction of performing competently, and well above the level suggested by her resume, in her moment in the national spotlight.