In her 1985 campaign memoir, Geraldine Ferraro recalls her annoyance during an interview on “Meet the Press’’ when she was asked, “Are you strong enough to push the button?’’
She was asked a variation of that question several times, including during a nationally televised 1984 debate against George H.W. Bush. Each time, Ferraro assured her questioner that yes, she had the strength.
Line up that moment in history against the trio of powerful women – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Office of Multilateral and Human Rights Director Samantha Power – recently making the case for air strikes against Libya. The first time in history that a team of female advisers pushed the U.S. toward military action, juxtaposed against one of the biggest doubts about the first woman to run on a national ticket, starkly illustrates the strides made by women in politics and our perceptions of them (not to mention the changing nature of the threats to our national security.)
Yes, for better or worse, we are strong enough.
"By placing a woman on the ticket, the country did more than check a box. More Americans are now open to a woman as commander and chief,'' said Donna Brazile, who worked on the 1984 campaign and ran Al Gore's bid in 2000.
The question of whether Ferraro was “strong enough’’ seems particularly silly considering her backbone of iron, the meaning of her last name in Italian. She endured her father’s death at age eight. As an assistant district attorney in Queens, she started a special bureau to prosecute sex crimes, child abuse and domestic violence. There were only only 17 women in Congress when she was elected in 1978.
For young women today, coming of age at a time when it is commonplace to turn on the television and see women engaged in national politics, it is impossible to overstate the impact of Ferraro’s achievement. That the surname on the 1984 ballot was her name, not her husband’s name, makes it all the more astonishing.
“After she was on the national ticket, the possibility of a woman was always on the table,’’ said Kiki McLean, a senior adviser to Clinton during her 2008 presidential campaign. “Michael Dukakis had to think about it. Bill Clinton had to think about it. George Bush had to think about it. And John McCain did it. Now it’s just part of the conversation.’’
Ferraro started a revolution, but the battles for equal treatment are far from over. Women candidates are judged more harshly about their physical appearances, their parenting skills, and their relationships. Remember all the fuss about whether Clinton cried or not during a campaign stop in New Hampshire in 2008? “How,’’ she had been asked by another woman, “did you get out the door every day?’’
That’s the kind of unanswerable question that can bring mist to the eyes of any woman trying to juggle marriage and motherhood and career and self.
“I know what she means to women candidates and women voters,’’ said Mary Beth Cahill, who ran John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. “I don’t think we’re that far away from seeing a woman president.’’
When I covered the last presidential campaign, my young daughters would frequently hover near the television during what seemed like an endless number of Democratic primary debates. There was Clinton, a burst of color, in a lineup of a half-dozen men. I felt a debt of gratitude for Clinton’s presence, and on Saturday, she expressed her own debt to Ferraro.
“She put the first crack’s in America’s glass ceiling,’’ said Clinton, who in 2008 eloquently described the 18 million ceiling cracks made by the voters who favored her in the Democratic primary.
Generations of women can also thank Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Chase Smith, Pat Schroeder — who did indeed cry — Elizabeth Dole, Carol Moseley Braun, and Sarah Palin.
Ferraro once said, “Every time a woman runs, women win.’’ She was right as rain.
Follow Beth Reinhard on Twitter at @bethreinhard.