The Unfulfilled Legacies of Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Ferraro

A look at how gender politics changed, and stayed the same, during the careers of two iconic women
Feraro Taylor - Reuters - banner.jpg

credits: Mario Anzuino/Rueters, Peter Morgan/Reuters

Like bookends on an era, the passing of two well-known American women last week underscored how much times have changed--and how much they have not.

The first to depart was Elizabeth Taylor, a woman of undoubted savvy and accomplishment who did a lot for others, especially those with AIDS, but one whose celebrity and power derived from her status as one of the sultriest sex symbols of all time.

The other to leave was Geraldine Ferraro, who turned her own traditional feminine role into a political base and who, in a bid for the vice presidency, changed American politics forever. "She took the 'only men need apply' sign off the White House," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.

Ferraro was a trailblazer rooted in tradition. She carefully cultivated her unpretentious image as a Queens, N.Y., wife and mother. But she also got a law degree and insisted on keeping her maiden name long before it was common for married women to do so. And she had a keen sense of the history she knew was making.

When Ferraro strode onto the podium of the 1984 Democratic National Convention to accept her nomination as Walter Mondale's running mate, the first woman to be placed on a major party's national ticket, she wore a dazzling suit of sufragist white.

No woman who witnessed the moment will ever forget its impact. "It epitomized for me the fact that women could do anything," said Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., one of six female senators from both parties who paid tribute to Ferraro on the Senate floor on Tuesday. It inspired Ellen Malcolm, who was finishing up her master's in business administration the year Ferraro was nominated, to launch EMILY's List, the political-action committee that has gone on to help countless Democratic women win political office. "The excitement about that election really shifted the dynamic," she recalled in an interview this week.

To think it took only 208 years from the nation's founding for a woman to almost reach the pinnacle of power. That's the other side of the long and excruciatingly slow-moving "herstory" in which Ferraro played such a landmark role--a side that most women didn't want to highlight during a week understandably devoted to a celebration of the congresswoman's achievement.

And it was an achievement. Every woman who has made it to an executive position today "stands on the shoulders of one who went before and didn't make it," said Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor. Consider: When Ferraro entered Congress in 1979, she was one of 18 women members. Today, there are 91.

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Kathy Kiely is managing editor of politics at National Journal.

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