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Geraldine Ferraro: a champion for women

Gary Caruso | Friday, April 8, 2011

The Notre Dame women’s basketball team — runners-up in this year’s collegiate varsity level national championship competition — owe their opportunity and global audience to women like Geraldine Ferraro, who recently passed away after a 12-year battle against multiple myeloma. Born into an Italian immigrant family, she grew up with her mother in the tough-acting New York neighborhoods of the Bronx and Queens during a time when women struggled for political, economic and social equality. Her successful law-and-order campaign slogan characterized her succinctly: “Finally, a Tough Democrat!”

This writer knew of her through her son, John, who played one summer on the coed softball team I coached on Capitol Hill. Aptly named “Yellow Journalists,” our team consisted of press secretaries. One of our players, a press secretary turned lobbyist with close ties to Ferraro, introduced John to our team. Ironically, it was this same lobbyist — turned alcoholic by the nature of her industry — whose serious drunk-driving collision unveiled to me Ferraro’s personal compassion.

Ferraro began her public career as an assistant district attorney in Queens heading a new Special Victims Bureau. When she first ran for congress in 1978, universities were completing a three-year transition to fully comply with Title IX regulations that ensured equality for both women and men in all scholastic activities at schools receiving federal funding. At that time, Ferraro stood strong for women’s equality and that carried over to her congressional career.

Ferraro described herself as a “small ‘c’ conservative” later turned moderate. Through the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, Ferraro helped lead the successful battle to pass the Economic Equity Act, a law ending discrimination against women’s salaries and pensions. She authored sections that reformed private pensions and increased retirement savings options for the elderly. As a Catholic, her pro-choice stance conflicted with her Church and many constituents. However, other social and foreign policy positions stayed in sync with her district. She supported Reagan policies that deployed the Pershing II missile and the Trident submarine, as well as broke with her party to support an anti-busing amendment to the Constitution.

It is difficult today to recall the enormity of Ferraro’s accomplishments a generation ago. Just last presidential election, our contenders included a woman and an African-American. In fact, Ferraro herself never denied that her sex was the essential factor in her selection as a vice presidential candidate. Yet, ironically, only once during the 1984 election season did Ronald Reagan trail Walter Mondale in the polls — the day following and a handful of days beyond Ferraro’s selection.

Having witnessed her personal compassion for my lobbyist friend, I know of her passion to help others. Having worked in Congress while she served, I know of her dedication to equality and her commitment to inspire future generations. It is best to pay homage to her memory by simply recalling eloquent words she spoke when accepting the Democratic vice presidential nomination.

“America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us. Tonight, the daughter of working Americans tells all Americans that the future is within our reach — if we’re willing to reach for it. The daughter of a woman whose highest goal was a future for her children talks about a future for us all.

“Our faith that we can shape a better future is what the American dream is all about. The promise of our country is that the rules are fair. If you work hard and play by the rules, you can earn your share of America’s blessings…Tonight, we reclaim our dream.

“It isn’t right that this year Ronald Reagan will hand the American people a bill for interest on the national debt larger than the entire cost of the federal government under John F. Kennedy. Our parents left us a growing economy. The rules say: We must not leave our kids a mountain of debt.

“It isn’t right that a woman should get paid 59 cents on the dollar for the same work as a man. If you play by the rules, you deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

“It isn’t right that — if trends continue — by the year 2000 nearly all of the poor people in America will be women and children. The rules of a decent society say, when you distribute sacrifice in times of austerity, you don’t put women and children first.

“By choosing a woman to run for our nation’s second highest office, you sent a powerful signal to all Americans. There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement.

“If we can do this, we can do anything.

“My mother did not break faith with me…and I will not break faith with you. To all the children of America, I say: The generation before ours kept faith with us, and like them, we will pass on to you a stronger, more just America.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.