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Geraldine Ferraro dies at 75; shattered political barrier for women as vice presidential nominee in 1984

Geraldine A. Ferraro ran with Walter Mondale as the Democratic nominee for vice president, becoming a symbol for women's equality. The candidacy of the former housewife, prosecutor and congresswoman was an attempt to turn the 'gender gap' of the 1980s to the Democrats' advantage.

March 26, 2011|By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

Geraldine A. Ferraro, the savvy New York Democrat who was embraced as a symbol of women's equality in 1984 when she became the first woman nominated for vice president by a major party, died Saturday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She was 75.

The cause was complications from multiple myeloma, her family said.

Ferraro was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable form of blood cancer, in 1998. She did not disclose her illness publicly until 2001, when she went on NBC's "Today" show and said she had beaten the cancer into remission with thalidomide, the once-banned drug that had proven effective with some end-stage cancers. The cancer recurred, but she again went into remission after therapy with a new drug.

Initially told that she had three to five years to live, she survived for more than 12 years, long enough to witness the historic candidacies of two other women in 2008: Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady and current secretary of State who ran against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who was Republican Sen. John McCain's running mate.

Ferraro was "a pioneer in our country for justice and a more open society," former Vice President Walter Mondale told the Associated Press of his former running mate. "She broke a lot of molds, and it's a better country for what she did."

Palin also praised Ferraro, writing in a Facebook message that she "broke one huge barrier and then went on to break many more."

Ferraro's 1984 candidacy was seen as a potentially powerful weapon to turn the emerging "gender gap" of the 1980s to the advantage of the Democratic Party, which sought to regain the White House after Ronald Reagan's first term.

But her four-month campaign almost immediately hit rough waters. She was bashed by critics who questioned the finances of her husband, John Zaccaro, a Manhattan real estate developer. A devout Roman Catholic, she was repeatedly assailed by New York's archbishop, the late John J. O'Connor, for her views supporting abortion rights. She also endured insinuations of mob connections as the first Italian American on a national ticket.

"I was constantly being asked, 'Was it worth it?' Of course it was worth it!" she wrote in "Framing a Life, A Family Memoir," published in 1998. "My candidacy was a benchmark moment for women. No matter what anyone thought of me personally, or of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, my candidacy had flung open the last door barring equality -- and that door led straight to the Oval Office."

Her nomination astonished some of the most stalwart feminists. Among them was Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem, who had predicted that 1984 would be the year that politicians talked seriously about putting a woman on the national ticket, not "the year they actually did it."

Over the next two decades, other women achieved milestones in national politics. Janet Reno became U.S. attorney general, Madeleine Albright was named secretary of State, and Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House.

Their path was eased by Ferraro, who believed that a childhood tragedy set up her moment in history.

"I've often said that if my father hadn't died, I might not have done anything," Ferraro once told Steinem in an interview. "I saw my mother left suddenly with kids and no money.... I wanted to be able to take care of myself and not miss a beat."

Born Aug. 26, 1935, in Newburgh, N.Y., she was the pampered daughter of Antonetta and Dominick Ferraro, Italian immigrants who had lost a son, Gerard, in a car crash and were so overjoyed at her birth a few years later that they named her Geraldine, in memory of him.

Dominick Ferraro ran a successful restaurant in Newburgh. When business fell on hard times, he turned to running a numbers game and was arrested. On the morning he was to appear in court, he died of an apparent heart attack. Ferraro was 8.

She became seriously anemic -- doctors told her she had internalized her grief -- and was unable to attend school for months. Strapped for money, her mother moved the family to a cramped Bronx apartment and took a job as a crochet beader. By scrimping on meat and other luxuries, she managed to send Ferraro to Marymount, an exclusive parochial school in Tarrytown, N.Y., and later to Marymount Manhattan College.

Ferraro graduated and became an elementary school teacher in Queens. At night she put herself through Fordham Law School, one of two women in a class of 179 whose professors resented her for "taking a man's rightful place."

Years later, when she was raising three children of her own and finally had begun to practice law, Ferraro split her legal fees with her mother and kept her maiden name in tribute.

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