On Geraldine's Shoulders

Today when she saw the headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, “Geraldine Ferraro: A ‘Lightening Bolt’ for Women in Politics,” my twelve-year-old daughter asked me, “Mama, who’s Geraldine Ferraro?

Sigh. What to say?

Well, of course, Geraldine Ferraro was the first female nominee for Vice President of the United States. And I started there.

But there is so much more to say to a young girl growing up in a complicated world; because Geraldine’s life and death -- and that glorious moment when she joined the ticket -- are all so much more significant than a single headline or sound bite.

How to contextualize Geraldine’s significance and the significance of her nomination, in 1984, for a generation that has seen three female Secretaries of State, four female Supreme Court Justices and the nearly-successful presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton? How to impress upon a pre-teenager the continued urgency of our mission push for female representation in Congress, the courts and yes, someday the White House?

I was a sophomore in college when Walter Mondale chose the 48-year-old congresswoman from New York in his uphill battle against incumbent Ronald Reagan. And though Reagan won with an 18-point victory, we younger women saw her candidacy, as the beginning of what we thought would be a change in American political life.

Martha Washington’s realm had been the household. George would mount his horse each day for the statehouse, and eventually for the battlefield; Martha’s circuit was from the main house to the kitchen, storeroom, poultry yard, washhouse, smokehouse, and garden.

True, without the Founding Mothers to see to the plantations, estates and homesteads, the Founding Fathers could not have done the work of declaring independence, waging war and writing the Constitution. Still, women’s contributions were domestic and, in some rare cases as consultants to their husbands, not as full participants in the political life of the country.

When the time for forming a more perfect union was hand, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in Philadelphia:

“…[I]n the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.

"Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.

"Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. ….

“Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the (servants) of your sex…." (Abigail Adams, 1776)

But “remember the ladies” they did not. In 1776, our forefathers declared all “men.”

Women would wait until August 18, 1920, for the right to vote. Even today, women are paid, on average, 78 percent of what men are paid.

Then there is politics.

Since 1917, when Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin (R, MT) became the first woman to serve in Congress, a total of 274 women have served as U.S. Representatives or Senators. Sounds like a lot, but consider that the total number of representatives sent to Congress since 1789 is in the thousands, and the number of female representatives becomes far less impressive.

In 1992, hailed as “The Year of the Woman,” we elected a record number of women (4) to the Senate.

The following January, Carol Moseley-Braun (D, IL) and Patty Murray (D, WA), and two Senators from California, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein (both Democrats) were sent to Washington. It was the first time in American history, that a state was represented in the Senate by two women. (I was so inspired that I also moved from California to Washington DC to join the Clinton Administration.)

But not everyone celebrated. When asked when his party might nominate a woman for President, George H.W. Bush sniffed, "This is supposed to be the year of the women in the Senate. Let's see how they do. I hope a lot of them lose."

It’s seems 41 may have gotten his wish, if not in the Senate (only Moseley-Braun has left), but in the larger cause of equal rights and opportunity. Simply put, we are losing ground in battles that we shouldn’t even be fighting at this stage of the game.

Nowhere have I heard this better discussed than on the Brian Lehrer show in his conversation with Kirsten Gillibrand. Senator Gillibrand was on to discuss data the recent White House Report on Women, especially the wage gap.

She also discussed politics:

“We still only have 17 women in the United States Senate...those are terrible indicators. Women have to be involved because if they don't participate, decisions are going to be made about every aspect of their lives and they might not like what those decisions are.’

We’ve come a long way since Martha Washington, but we still have so far to go. There still are not enough women in the higher levels of most professions, including politics.

That is because we don’t make it easy. Not for a woman. Hilary Clinton learned this lesson the hard way back in 1992:

“Those of us who have tried to have a career, tried to have an independent life, tried to make a difference, certainly somebody like myself whose combined that with a very full and active public involvement, … you know I’ve done the best I can to lead my life; and you know, I suppose it will be subject to that kind of attack but it’s not true and I don’t know what else to say other than … I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”

ABC News Nightline did an entire broadcast on the issue: “Meet the new political wife. She has a career, she has opinions. A partner in every way.”

How challenging for the American psyche that a woman might have a career, opinions AND be a wife. Oh my!

We are behind Italy, England, India and even Pakistan, all countries that have had women heads of state. We have had none.

So, when Geraldine Ferraro decided it was time for women to be full participants, not just at the polls but at the top of the ballot, it was a hugely important moment in American history. It was important not just for women but also in the evolution of our country.

This morning, I tried to convey to my daughter the level of excitement that surrounded Ferraro’s candidacy. The mood at the Moscone Center in San Francisco (where she accepted the nomination) was electric.

But of course, there were those who were not ready. Traditional attacks of the sort that would be made on a male candidate (on her finances, her politics and positions) were to be expected. But there were also the attacks on her wardrobe choices, her hairstyle, whether or not she teared up and the state of her marriage. This was the extra cost of being a female candidate.

And let us be clear: It is not just the men. Often we women stand in the way of our sisters.

When Hillary boldly, and with a nod to Gerry, made a run in 2008 for the top of the Democratic ticket, there was the famous moment that is sadly emblematic of the choices many women feel about other women.

At a campaign event in South Carolina, a female supporter asked John McCain: "How do we beat the bitch?"

If the Arizona senator objected to that characterization of then-Senator Clinton, he didn't say so. (At the time, McCain had only a two-point lead over Clinton.) Eventually he got around to stammering, "I respect Senator Clinton, and I respect anyone who gets the nomination of the Democratic Party."

McCain’s choice, after receiving the GOP nomination, to place Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket, seems cynical, given his capitulation to such grossly sexist humor. It could not tip the balance in his favor, but the choice of a woman, once again, electrified the nation, and Palin has captured our attention, ever since.

Of course, Hillary didn’t get her party’s nomination. Barack Obama did. Whether that was about gender, or not, we will never know.

But we do know this: Win or lose, every time a woman runs for office -- Hillary, Geraldine before her, Shirley Chisholm before that and Victoria Woodhull (who was the first woman to declare and campaign for the Presidency in 1872), they lay the groundwork for the woman who will eventually hold that office. Each woman who dares to try is laying a brick for the foundation of the dream that a woman will someday sit in the Oval Office – in my daughter’s lifetime. One day that woman will represent our daughters and sons in finest tradition of our nation -- that all men and women are created equal.

I pray that, by the time my daughter is sitting at this keyboard, writing of the passing of the great women of my generation, she will be able to write the name of the first woman Vice President or (dare I say it) President who stood on the shoulders of Geraldine Ferraro to get there.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.