When I think of Geraldine Ferraro, I smile.
To the millions of women who saw their futures open up thanks to her, she was a pioneer.
To the press who covered her 1984 campaign, she was a fresh face, an upstart, a surprise.
To at least one old-school politician, she was “young lady”—even though she was a three-term Congresswoman.
To herself, she was always “a housewife from Queens.” It was a title that captured so many things she loved: her family, her community, New York City.
And to her friends, of which she seemed to have thousands, she was simply, wonderfully, Gerry.
Gerry lived energetically.
She didn’t walk onto a stage. She strode.
She didn’t rise to prominence. She rocketed.
She was down to earth. Personal. And ferociously loyal to the people she loved. When Gerry had your back, you knew you were covered.
Maybe it’s because she grew up with a mother who always had her back. A mother who would say about their family name: “Ferro means iron. Keep going!”
Gerry’s debut in San Francisco in 1984 was electrifying. When she stood at the microphone, she couldn’t speak for eight full minutes—the crowd wouldn’t stop cheering. I was there that night on the floor of the Moscone Center, one of thousands of women beaming and clapping until my hands ached. Gerry told us, “If we can do this, we can do anything.”
She traveled thousands of miles on the campaign trail, speaking to huge crowds full of parents with daughters on their shoulders. When she came through Little Rock, I brought my four-year-old daughter to meet her. The photo I have of the four of us—Gerry, Bill, Chelsea, and me—is something we cherish. To the women of my generation, Gerry meant so much for us and our futures—but even more for our daughters and their futures.
Gerry became famous for one thing—one great thing. But her campaign for Vice President was only four months of a life that encompassed so much more.
Gerry was a teacher; a prosecutor; an advocate for women, children, and the elderly; a Harvard fellow; a wife, mother, aunt, and grandmother. And to all her many friends, she was our best friend.
Gerry and I were often linked together in articles about women in politics. She is seen, correctly, as the one who paved the way for my career and the careers of many women in Washington and statehouses across the country. I spoke about 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling; she had put a big chip in it 25 years earlier.
One part of her legacy that often goes unnoticed was her work on human rights. When Bill named her to lead the American delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights, Gerry—who, let’s remember, was born on Women’s Equality Day—relentlessly pushed to make sure that women’s rights were viewed as human rights, as they should be. We traveled together to Beijing in 1995 for the Fourth World Conference on Women, when she was vice chair of the U.S. delegation. She raised the hot-button issues, including violence against women in wartime.
Something else was clear in Beijing: Gerry had a gift for making a global issue personal. When the conference took up a hard question—how do you define a family?—there were some people who said there was only one kind of family: a mother, a father, and their children. Gerry got out of her seat, pulled out a family photo from her pocketbook, and walked from table to table, waving a picture of herself, her widowed mother, and her surviving brother.
“Are you telling me that we were not a family?” she said.
Gerry knew how to make a point.
When she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the doctors told her she could expect no more than three to five years. Well, that was 12 years ago. And she handled that challenge like she did every other. She could have said, “I’ve done quite a bit in my life. I’ve helped many people, I’ve served my country. I’m going to take it easy now.” And no one would have disagreed or begrudged her that.
Instead, she became a fierce advocate for people with cancer. She was interviewed on the “Today Show” at her doctor’s office while receiving her IV treatment. She went down to Washington and testified before the Senate.
I remember that day well. She was eloquent, courageous, funny, and so personal. She said, “I’m a lucky woman. I have great doctors and a family that is always there to boost me up.” But what bothered her, she said, was that the treatment available to her wasn’t available to every person with cancer in this country, and it should be.
A year later, the Hematological Cancer Research Investment and Education Act was passed.
That was pure Gerry. Turning her illness into another chance to help others. Showing that iron spirit—the “Ferro” in Ferraro.
You could still see that spirit two years ago as she was wheeled up to the stage at the Eleanor Roosevelt League in New York, which mentors women who are running for political office. An audience of 900 watched as she stood up from her wheel chair and spoke. A speech that was supposed to be 10 minutes lasted 45. Everyone stayed utterly quiet and focused on Gerry as she spoke about—what else?—women helping women.
Gerry did so much with her life. And a great deal of what she did involved breaking down barriers—which made it possible for others to do more with their lives.
We send our prayers and our gratitude to her family, who supported her and shared her with us—John, Donna, John Jr., and Laura, and their spouses and children.
“If we can do this, we can do anything,” Gerry said 27 years ago.
When the day comes when a woman is elected President or Vice President of the United States—and that day will come—we will know that she helped make it possible. And we will say, “Gerry, we did this—we can do anything—thanks to you.”