When Walter Mondale announced Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate during the 1984 presidential campaign, the three-term New York Congresswoman called the historic choice a "powerful signal" to all Americans.
“There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement. If we can do this, we can do anything,” Ferraro said July 19, 1984, during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
The first woman to be named a vice-presidential candidate for a major party, Ferraro, who died in 2011 at age 75 from complications due to multiple myeloma, remains one of three women, along with Republican Sarah Palin, in 2008, and Democrat Kamala Harris, in 2020, to receive such a nomination.
Hillary Clinton, in 2016, became the first, and only, woman to receive a presidential nomination by a major party. Margaret Chase Smith, who ran for the Republican nomination in 1964, was the first woman whose name was placed in nomination at a major political party convention. And Shirley Chisholm, in 1972, was the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination and the first Black candidate to run for a major party's nomination.
Ferraro’s Nomination Boosted Mondale’s Ticket
Down 16 points in the polls when Mondale named Ferarro, then 48, his vice president pick, the excitement surrounding the nomination gave the new ticket a big bounce, bringing the polling to nearly even with Republican challengers Ronald Reagan and his running mate, George H.W. Bush.
“The Ferraro pick represented the intersection of principle and politics,” says Joel K. Goldstein, vice-presidential historian, professor of law emeritus at St. Louis University and author of The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden. “Walter Mondale's public service was dedicated to opening doors for disadvantaged groups and he constructed his VP selection process consistent with that commitment.”
While previously the only diversity question for the office had been “whether to choose a Catholic for the ticket,” according to Goldstein, Mondale interviewed three women for the job: Ferraro, Mayor Diane Feinstein of San Francisco and Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins. He also considered two African Americans and one Latino mayor, as well as more conventional candidates including Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Sen. Gary Hart and Gov. Mike Dukakis.
“Mondale took a lot of heat for considering people who did not have conventional experience but he recognized that since women and other minorities had been excluded from participating at the highest levels of national electoral and appointive service, one had to seek talent in less conventional ways,” Goldstein says. “Ferraro was a three-term representative who was seen as a rising star in the party. Choosing the first woman for a national ticket was consistent with Mondale's commitments and represented a strategic effort to remake the electoral map.”
In his 2010 book, The Good Fight, Mondale wrote that he thought Ferraro would be “an excellent vice president and could be a good president. … I also knew that I was far behind Reagan, and that if I just ran a traditional campaign, I would never get in the game.”
He added that his wife, Joan, urged him to select a woman as vice president. “Joan thought we were far enough along in the movement for women’s rights that the political system had produced plenty of qualified candidates, and she thought voters were ready for a ticket that would break the white-male mold,” Mondale wrote.
Janine Parry, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, director of the Arkansas Poll and co-author of Women's Rights in the USA, says Ferraro acknowledged and embraced the fact that gender was the central reason for the choice.
“Feminists of the period, having identified a ‘gender gap’ in men’s and women’s partisan preferences just a few years earlier, pressed Mondale hard for a female running mate,” she says. “Getting a woman on a major party’s ticket was important to feminists on its face, but it also served to differentiate the Democratic platform from Republican one, which had taken a sharp right turn on both social and economic issues under Ronald Reagan.”
Voter Reactions to the Nomination
Upon the Ferraro announcement, Time magazine ran her on its cover with the headline, “A Historic Choice.” Ann Richards, then state treasurer of Texas, who would go on to serve as governor, said at the time, “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!”
Goldstein calls it a “euphoric moment in American politics.”
“The initial response at the pre-convention rollout and to her acceptance speech helped tighten the race and bring Mondale-Ferraro into a competitive position in the polls,” he says.
But Ferraro faced challenges, the biggest of which were being a woman and long-held stereotypes of masculine leaders, says Nichole Bauer, assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.
"Voters associate leadership, especially at the presidential level, with masculinity, and this includes having masculine traits like being tough, aggressive and assertive; and, being an expert on masculine issues like national security, the military and defense," she says.
Throughout the campaign, according to Bauer, the news media, voters and Bush, her vice president opponent, questioned Ferraro’s ability to meet these expectations.
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In researching news coverage of Ferraro during the campaign for her book The Qualifications Gap: Why Women Must Be Better than Men to Win Political Office, Bauer says she found quotes from voters in news articles that said things like, “I don’t trust the woman. She’s gotten very emotional about a lot of things already, and there’s going to be lots worse to come.”
"These sorts of statements reflect a stereotypic belief that women are too emotional for political office, and that political leaders should be firm and stoic," Bauer says.
But, Bauer adds, she doesn't think having Ferraro on the ticket hurt Mondale’s campaign in the end. "Voters tend to vote for the top slot (president) and not the VP pick in the end," she says. "To be sure, he was facing steep odds with Reagan in 1984 given the economic improvements over the last four years and Reagan’s popularity."
Ferraro addressed that herself in a 1988 letter to The New York Times. “Throwing Ronald Reagan out of office at the height of his popularity, with inflation and interest rates down, the economy moving and the country at peace, would have required God on the ticket,” she wrote, “and She was not available!”
Scrutiny Over Ferraro’s Finances
While feminists were thrilled with the Ferraro pick, and, overall, voters seemed to receive her positively, most forecasters still saw little hope for a Democratic win.
“Of course, in hindsight, it’s clear that—not unlike the McCain-Palin Hail Mary of 2008—Ferraro might have been better vetted by the Democrats’ national leadership,” Parry says. “But it’s equally clear—also like Palin—that she was subjected to a kind of hard-edged scrutiny that wouldn’t have been leveled at a man.”
At issue: Ferraro and her real estate developer husband John Zaccarro filed separate tax returns, and Zaccarro refused to make his returns public.
“Republicans went after Ferraro by attacking her husband,” Goldstein says. “Mr. Zaccaro resisted disclosing aspects of his finances on the grounds that it would be harmful to his business dealings. The issue took some of the lustre off Rep. Ferraro and Mondale was put in a terrible position as it dragged on because he couldn't press Ferraro to accomplish the financial disclosures although that was needed to move the campaign past the issue.”
Ultimately, Ferraro answered an onslaught of media questions, with no improprieties unearthed. The couple did pay the IRS $53,459 in back taxes.
“There was nothing in it all that was even close to disqualifying regarding Rep. Ferraro,” Goldstein says. “But the attacks had tarnished her brand.”
On Election Day, Reagan trounced Mondale, with the former vice president winning just his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
Later, Ferraro wrote in her memoir, My Story, that while more Republican women turned out to vote than Democrats, she didn’t think that affected the results. “It demeans women to think that they would vote in a mindless block just because of their gender—or a candidate’s gender,” she wrote.
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The Mondale-Ferraro ticket may have lost, but Ferraro’s nomination certainly had a role-modeling effect on women, according to Bauer.
“Just eight years after Ferraro’s nomination was the first ‘year of the woman’ when record numbers of women swept into congress in 1992, and many of those women have spoken about being inspired by Ferraro to run for office,” she says.
Bauer says there is evidence that when women who aspire to run for political office, and see women in more high-profile roles being treated in a fairly sexist way, it can mobilize them to run for higher office or get involved in politics. “Ferraro’s nomination set the stage for a lot of future candidacies for women over the next few decades,” she adds.
Upon her death, then-President Barack Obama called Ferraro a trailblazer.
“Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live,” he wrote in a statement.
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Ferraro acknowledged the progress of women in politics, as well.
“I've been saying for 24 years that women's candidacies—I'm not talking about me, specifically, or Hillary or Governor Palin—but women's candidacies have a larger effect,” she told Newsweek in 2008. “They are like tossing a pebble into a lake, because of all the ripples that go out from there. ... That was the impact of the '84 campaign, and they still go on.
“Just today, I met a Republican woman and she told me that she was in the tub when she heard I'd been nominated, and she started to cry. People responded in all kinds of different ways. Many women told me that it inspired them to go back to school and made a lot of women think about running for public office. ... Every time a woman runs, women win.”