Saturday, July 19, 2014

The First Bump on That Glass Ceiling

Nearly 15 years earlier to the day, Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind. On this night in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro took a giant leap for women.

She had been telling folks to "just call me Geri" since long before Walter Mondale picked her to be his running mate a week earlier. But somehow that just didn't seem right for a presumptive vice–presidential nominee.

It took her more than four minutes, but Ferraro finally said what thousands in San Francisco's Moscone Center and millions more watching on TV had been waiting to hear.

First, though, she reaffirmed that "America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us."

Exactly one week earlier, Mondale, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had announced that he had chosen her to be his running mate — and now, it was her turn to officially accept the nomination (per political protocol) after the delegates approved Mondale's choice, which they did by acclamation.

It was a mere formality, of course. A rather quaint American tradition. No one thought for a second that she would turn down the nomination. And she didn't. Then after she had accepted the nomination, she spent about 25 minutes introducing herself to America. Other than her debate with Vice President George H.W. Bush three months later, it was about the most extensive exposure America would get to the first female on a major party's national ticket.

Not all Americans were watching, of course. They never are, but in a convention week that included soaring speeches from Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, Ferraro's speech clearly was the emotional high point.

American Rhetoric proclaimed the speech she gave 30 years ago tonight to be #56 on the list of the top 100 speeches of the 20th century. It carried unique challenges that neither Cuomo nor Jackson had to face.

Ferraro was the first woman on a major–party ticket. It was historic, and all eyes would be watching her closely. Her detractors would be looking for anything to criticize, and her supporters would be looking for anything to praise.

Ferraro simply seemed to want her opportunity to tell the country what she could do.

"The promise of our country is that the rules are fair," Ferraro told the delegates. "If you work hard and play by the rules, you can earn your share of America's blessings."

That is pretty standard political rhetoric, but it seemed more convincing coming from the first woman on a major party's national ticket.

And, taking a page from John F. Kennedy's political playbook, Ferraro said, "The issue is not what America can do for women, but what women can do for America."

Reactions to the speech were generally good. Pundit reactions to the selection of Ferraro as running mate were decidedly mixed, although Ferraro initially proved to be an asset. Mondale's campaign had been far behind Ronald Reagan's in the polls before the convention; after the convention, the Democratic ticket enjoyed a nice bounce and even managed to pull roughly even — for awhile.

But the Democrats came back to earth in a hurry. By the end of July, questions came up about her finances, her husband's finances, their separate tax returns, etc., and the momentum came to a screeching halt.

No one knew any of that 30 years ago tonight, of course, when Ferraro stood before the delegates to the Democratic convention and accepted the vice presidential nomination.

It was a legitimate nomination, but it was still mostly symbolic. Nearly everyone watching probably realized, on some level, that she would not be elected.

Nevertheless, the euphoria inside the convention hall was unmistakable, and Ferraro was almost giddy at times.

"By choosing a woman to run for our nation's second–highest office," Ferraro said, "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."

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