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.
But further consider: More than a quarter-century after Ferraro's historic breakthrough, women still constitute just 17 percent of the national legislature in a country where they make up 51 percent of the population. To put it another way, My National Journal colleague Jessica Taylor notes that she wasn't yet born when Ferraro was nominated as the Democratic vice presidential candidate but was already a working journalist by the next time a major party put a woman on its national ticket (the GOP's 2008 nomination of Sarah Palin for vice president).
"It's disheartening," says Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "There is still such a long way for women to go."
You would think by now that women have proved they can hold their own with the boys. My colleague Beth Reinhard pointed out this week that while Ferraro faced questions during the 1984 campaign about whether a manicured hand would have the strength to push the nuclear button, it was a cadre of female officials in his administration who persuaded President Obama to go to war in Libya.
And yet, like cockroaches, the old sexual prejudices still scuttle out of dark corners. Remember the brouhaha when then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton showed up in the chamber in a (very flattering, I thought) top that revealed the barest hint of cleavage? That this was regarded as news worthy of outraged commentary could only lead one to the conclusion that the nation still had not quite yet accepted the notion of a senator with mammary glands.