Podcast Interview with Geraldine Ferraro

by Patricia V. Davis

(Editor’s Note: This interview was converted from analog tape to MP3 nine months after Ms. Ferraro’s passing, in honor of Italian American Heritage Month 2011.)

Five years after her historic run for Vice President of the United States, I had the privilege of interviewing Geraldine Ferraro. It was 1989, and I’d barely stepped out from behind the confines of my native New York, still “green in judgment, cold in blood.” All of this is readily apparent in this interview where, in a pronounced East Coast accent I wasn’t aware I’d had, I not only interrupt, but argue with my idol as she patiently answers my questions about why she conducted herself with such restraint during the 1984 Mondale–Ferraro presidential campaign, a race in which everything about her, from her integrity to her sex to her lineage, was maligned by her political opponents, whose persecution of her was gleefully supported by the mainstream press.

She told me that she couldn’t be seen reacting emotionally, or rather “like a woman,” by calling George Will out for his blatant sexism, or refuting false allegations of tax fraud and connections to the Mafia. She didn’t react either when, after she’d stood up in support of women’s rights, she got a public verbal flogging by then-archbishop of New York, Cardinal O’Connor, because she didn’t want to upset her “Catholic constituents.” She explains away why only 22% of women voters supported her campaign for Vice President, although she admits she was “surprised by that.” She does confess that she was frustrated because the Democrats spent “a lot of time yakking and not enough time acting,” and that they “shouldn’t have allowed the Republicans to drive the campaign issues.”

How ironic that nothing has changed about the way the Democrats conduct business, and 22 years later, I still disagree with their methods. Furthermore, I still wish that Geraldine Ferraro had defended herself against every slanderous accusation that came her way. I don’t believe the outcome could have been any worse, but then again, I’m speaking from a generation of women who were brought up on the word “no,” but rarely took “no” for an answer. Geraldine’s generation was also brought up on that word, and too many conformed to the expectations of their time, which is one of the reasons only a small percentage of women in her age bracket supported her candidacy (but more on that later). Because Geraldine was a forerunner, particularly in politics, she had to tread more carefully, or so she was advised. That fact doesn’t make it sting any less, because even today, women who strive to achieve positions of power in the United States are still treated with contempt, and Geraldine Ferraro got it the worst.

It was scarcely mentioned in the major press outlets during her campaign that she was brilliant. She went to Marymount College on a scholarship at the age of 16, graduated in 1956, and became a teacher in the New York City public school system shortly thereafter. Still feeling unfulfilled, she then took night classes at Fordham University, where she was one of two women in a class of 179 pupils, earning her law degree in 1960, the same year she married. When the youngest of her three children went to school full time, Ferraro began working in private practice, and in 1974 she became an assistant district attorney in Queens County, New York. One of her most notable contributions to the District Attorney’s Office was creating the Special Victims Bureau, which prosecuted a variety of cases involving crimes against children and the elderly, as well as sexual offenses and domestic abuse. She became head of that department in 1977, and naturally, while she did the same work as her male colleagues and was even praised for her dedication, she discovered that she was being paid less than the men in her office.

The press also rarely mentioned that, in 1978, when she was first elected to the House of Representatives, she did a wealth of good there, too, continuing her fight for women, urging the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She became a fierce opponent of Ronald Reagan and his economic policies, objecting to his possible cuts to social security and medicare programs so vehemently that when Barbara Bush was asked how she would describe Ms. Ferraro, it prompted her to quip, “I’m not allowed to say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.'”

After the Mondale ticket was defeated, Ferraro continued on in politics by representing the US at the United Nations on human rights issues during the Clinton administration. She was also a founding member of the National Organization of Italian-American Women. She never parlayed her career in politics into a reality show, or further aggrandize it by getting either of her daughters to be on Dancing With The Stars, either. (Though they did do one Diet Pepsi commercial together.)

As one of the few women in Congress at the time, Ferraro became a powerful symbol for the Feminist movement. Another seldom-mentioned fact about her was, despite the dressing down she’d received from the archbishop for being pro-choice, she was still a practicing Roman Catholic who went to church every Sunday. There are a lot of people in her neighborhood, including me, who can attest to what a down-to-earth person she was in her personal life. As I mentioned in the introduction of this interview when it first appeared in its entirety in the BQE, a now-defunct New York newspaper which had a circulation of about 50,000 at the time, another thing Geraldine and I had in common besides our background of teaching in the New York City public school system was that we went to the same hair salon, which is where (with the help of the manager, Mary Lopez) I mustered up the courage to ask her for an interview. She certainly knew what a big break she was giving me at the time by saying yes, and I never forgot it.

The taped part of our interview was never meant to be heard; it was for me to transcribe, which I did, painstakingly, during my two-year-old son’s naps. The original interview ran over an hour long and I cut out not one word. Due to my inexperience with the publishing world at the time, I believed that the entire American citizenry would read it, that they all should read it, and thus know what I knew for certain ─ that Gerry Ferraro was one hell of a standup gal. She was also one hell of a role model for a first-generation Italian-American Baby Boomer like me, who longed to be more, who longed to make a difference, just like she did.

I was crushed when she lost her bid for Vice President, crushed that she never returned to Congress, crushed again when her comments about Barack Obama were misunderstood (what else is new with the media and Ferraro?) and crushed a fourth time to learn that she lost her 12-year fight with cancer.

Though our editors did their best to re-engineer the sound, this podcast comes from a 22-year-old cassette tape, so try to ignore the background noises of Geraldine’s secretary on the phone, the incessant sneezing of an intern with a severe cold, and the background hissing of the original tape. Approximately half of the interview did not convert because Geraldine spoke softly to me even when I became upset, and the sound did not transfer over to the mp3 converter.

Nonetheless, we’re happy to present this small piece of history to you, and I have a new appreciation for the things she thought and said so long ago now that I’m the same age she was when she granted me this interview. It begins with her answer to my question, “Why do you think Walter Mondale picked you, a female, as his running mate?” and ends with Geraldine’s commentary about how no one came to her defense ─ not the women’s groups she so strongly supported, not the Italian-American groups ─ no one ─ as she was repeatedly slandered in the press.

If after hearing this podcast anyone is interested in the rest of what we discussed and what her answers were, please email me at patricia@harlotssauce.com, and I’ll happily send you a copy of the full transcript. Below are two videos for you to also enjoy ─ her Vice-Presidential nomination acceptance speech and a snippet from her 1984 Vice-Presidential debate with George Bush Sr., where, in a turnabout from her usual policy, she lets him know in no uncertain terms that she resents the fact that he’s talking down to her:

I also highly recommend her book, Ferraro: My Story, which can still be ordered on amazon.com by clicking the book cover below:

I did not see Geraldine Ferraro in person again until twenty years later, at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference in Long Beach, California. She was serving on a panel and I was there to take notes for the film production crew. I went up to say hello, wondering if she would remember me.

She did.

“Wow,” she said. “That was a long time ago.”

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