Remembering Geraldine Ferraro, 1935-2011

The first female nominee for national office becomes an inkblot test for obituarists

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Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to be nominated for national office by a major political party, passed away on Saturday, from complications related to multiple myeloma. She was 75.

Ferraro made history in 1984, when, as a Queens Congresswoman, she accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president and joined Walter Mondale in his attempt to unseat President Ronald Reagan. Mondale and Ferraro's campaign would end in historic defeat--Reagan won 49 out of 50 states that year, and received more electoral votes than any presidential candidate before or since--but Ferraro's presence on the ticket was nonetheless groundbreaking.

Ferraro was a compelling figure with a colorful life, and when it comes to making sense of her place in history, obituary writers have been spoiled for choice. Here's a look at some of the ways Ferraro has been remembered this weekend:

Her Scandals Sunk Mondale, Or Not

Ferraro was never an uncontroversial candidate. During the campaign, it came out that she and her husband, John Zaccaro, had filed separate tax returns, and when Zaccaro was asked to release his tax information, he initially refused. The question of whether Zaccaro and Ferraro had anything to hide eventually proved a major headache for the Democratic campaign. In The Washington Post's accounting, "allegations of financial impropriety on the part of Ms. Ferraro’s husband... contributed to an overwhelming loss for Mondale and Ms. Ferraro" in November.

But The New York Times is more sympathetic to Ferraro, giving her the last word in her own obituary. "Throwing Ronald Reagan out of office at the height of his popularity," said Ferraro in a 1988 letter to the Times, "with inflation and interest rates down, the economy moving and the country at peace, would have required God on the ticket... and She was not available!"

She Blazed a Trail for Clinton, Palin...

"Geraldine Ferraro cracked the marble ceiling," said Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski in a statement this weekend. "She paved the way for women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. Someday, a woman will become President of the United States -- and Geraldine Ferraro paved the way."

Mikulski only cites Democratic women as examples--which maybe isn't a surprise, since she's a Democrat herself. But The Wall Street Journal points out that Ferraro felt some amount of solidarity with Sarah Palin, too. Though Ferraro supported first Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign, she said of Palin at one point: "I want her to do well ... I think when a woman stands up there, it's important for little girls to see someone there who can stand toe to toe with the guy who's been in the Senate for 38 years and running for vice president."

...But She's a Reminder of How Far We Haven't Come

"In the more than quarter-century since the 1984 campaign, further progress on gender equality in the political world has been, at best, mixed," writes Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly. "Capitol Hill is still dominated by men ... We finally had a woman as Speaker of the House, but she only had two terms, and was ruthlessly demonized by the far-right. And in national electoral politics, there's only been one other woman to make a major-party ticket, and her nomination was little more than a campaign stunt gone horribly awry."

Time's Michael Crowley agrees: "The gender crusade that Ferraro came to symbolize is still a long way from fulfilling its potential ... [Ferraro's death] is a moment to consider how much work remains for the cause of gender equality that she symbolized."

She Was Comfortable With Being a Woman

Slate's Emily Yoffe recalls meeting Ferraro on Capitol Hill at some point before she became the Dems' vice-presidential nominee, and asking about the Congresswoman's "strappy open-toed shoes that showed off her bright red toenails... She laughed and said that while it was important for a women to look professional, why bother trying to look like a man? She added that it was fun that we could show off red toenails and they couldn’t."

Yoffe adds that Ferraro seemed to have struck an admirable work-life balance: For women who "struggle to figure out how to scale the professional heights while being the kinds of mothers we want to be," Ferraro showed that "there’s time to take the bar exam, read bedtime stories, push legislation, and paint your toenails red."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.