Donna Zaccaro, Ferraro’s daughter, remembers that night as the kickoff to a thrilling campaign. Ferraro had all “the best aspects of a rock star,” Madeleine Albright, who advised Ferraro on foreign policy, recalled in “Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way,” the documentary Zaccaro made about her mother’s life. “People had never seen crowds like that for a vice presidential candidate.”
But Zaccaro also remembers the relentless misogynistic scrutiny.
A Mississippi pol asked Ferraro whether she could bake blueberry muffins (“Sure can, can you?” she shot back, with a smile). On “Meet the Press,” Marvin Kalb asked her whether she had what it took to “push the nuclear button.” “Do you think in any way that the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” one moderator asked her during her vice presidential debate with George Bush.
Even women seemed to doubt whether she could do the job. “We [women] look at ourselves and think, ‘I couldn’t handle it, so I don’t know if she could, either,’” one Tennessean told New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd. “Maybe that’s the wrong thing to do. Men don’t do that.”
American political sexism has become less brazen since 1984, but Harris will recognize some of what Ferraro saw. The media is still more likely to cover a female politician’s appearance than a male politician’s. And according to research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, women running for executive office have to prove to voters that they are qualified, while for men, qualifications are assumed. But if a woman comes across as “too tough,” her “likability” may suffer. Voters will vote for a man they don’t like, but not a woman they don’t like.
“I always thought about Bernie Sanders as this perfect example” of some of these double standards, Walsh says. “If you had a woman candidate who presented the way Bernie Sanders did, they would get nowhere. Hair a mess, wagging your fingers. … People would not take it from a woman.”
There’s also the issue of the spouse. In 1984, Ferraro’s campaign was plagued by questions about the finances of her husband, real estate developer John Zaccaro. The controversy first was that Zaccaro, who filed tax returns separately from Ferraro, refused to release them. Once he did, the media spent weeks investigating the family’s finances, even insinuating the couple had ties to organized crime. At one point, the Philadelphia Inquirer apparently had at least 25 reporters on the Ferraro-Zaccaro money beat. A Reagan campaign aide later told the Daily Beast that many of the stories were provided directly by the Reagan campaign (which included a young Roger Stone) and that he knew that Ferraro didn’t have Mafia connections.
“This was the first time that a spouse was used to bring down a woman, and that has become a very tried and true strategy now—investigate the spouse,” said pollster and Democratic strategist Celinda Lake in “Paving the Way.” The implication—more pointed in Ferraro’s day—was that the wife would be taking cues from her husband.
“What [Ferraro] went through was probably the toughest scrutiny anybody’s ever—presidential or vice presidential candidate—[gone through] in history,” said Ed Rollins, Reagan’s 1984 campaign manager, in the film.
In the end, the ticket faltered—it was widely agreed that Mondale was always going to lose—and women broke for Reagan, too.
But Ferraro’s run did mark a new era. New organizations popped up, including EMILY’s List, whose goal is to help elect Democratic female candidates to public office. “There was so little idea of what to do with a woman candidate by the establishment” in 1984, says the organization’s president, Stephanie Shriock, that a group of women said, “we need to change this dynamic.” The number of women elected to Congress began to creep up after 1984, jumping dramatically in 1992.
Still, it wasn’t until 16 years later that a major party tried again with a female VP.
In 2008, John McCain’s trailing campaign needed a shot in the arm. When he selected a little-known, conservative first-term governor, Sarah Palin, to be his running mate, he hoped the surprise pick could pull disgruntled Hillary Clinton voters away from Barack Obama. “It was a fundamental misunderstanding of what the gender gap is,” Walsh says. “It’s not about the gender of the candidate”—it’s about a set of policies that appeal to women. Meaning, while a female candidate like Harris might boost enthusiasm among women within her party, her gender alone is not likely to cause Republican women to switch their vote.