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A Woman of Valor

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"We have only just begun," Geraldine Ferraro wrote in inscribing a photograph to me after the 1984 campaign. I keep it above my desk, to remind myself that Rome wasn't built in a day, that it takes courage and perseverance when you're trying to change the world. 

Gerry looks impossibly young in those pictures, nearly 10 years younger than I am now. And as I look back, I was practically a baby, barely 30, when it was my job, as executive director of the platform committee, to travel around the country with her, highlighting her expertise and political skills, all in an effort to get a woman on the ticket. 

And we did.  

There was the "A Team," an informal group of women activists whose first step was to get her the platform position, and who worked tirelessly with me to make sure that her chairmanship provided precisely the platform she needed to get national attention and the respect of the guys.  

There was the platform team -- a very little team, including Pam Fleischaker, Charles Atkins, George Kannar and Meredithe Napper -- which managed to pull together major hearings in almost every city in the country. The goal was to showcase not only her smarts, but also her savvy -- her ability to pull together a party that had almost drowned in a bloodbath of platform fights in 1980 into one that came together on a united platform in 1984.  

There were the outside agitators, led by NOW and other groups, who kept the heat on Vice President Mondale to keep his promise to seriously consider a woman for the No. 2 slot. 

But most important, there was Gerry.  

In the days since her death, I've watched as all kinds of people have described a woman they didn't know. Some of the descriptions make me laugh. Notwithstanding Madeleine Albright's tireless efforts, Gerry never considered herself the world's expert on foreign policy. She knew what she believed in, but I'm not sure any of us -- except Madeleine -- could have named the leaders of every African or Asian country. She could be very tough. She was as feisty as they come. She made mistakes -- as she would be the first to admit, including that famous quip about "Italian men" not wanting to release their tax information. 

But for a generation of women, her selection marked a milestone in American politics. Like the Kennedy assassination, so many women can remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. "It's a girl," Linda Wertheimer pronounced on NPR. And not just any girl. 

Gerry was my first woman boss. As I think about it, she may have been my only woman boss in all these years.  

Did it matter? In her case, it did -- not because we sometimes had fun shopping or catching a bite or having a drink; not because we laughed together at the way the press covered her clothes and her lipstick. It mattered because she taught me lessons that went beyond politics. 

Gerry loved politics, but she loved her family even more. Between politics and her family, family came first. In those days, she was fiercely devoted to her husband, to her mother and to the three children she loved more than life. 

She got beat up plenty in that campaign, from all corners. But I never heard her question her decision or whether we had done her a favor or a disservice, no matter how nasty some of the attacks. It was only after the campaign, when her husband and children were placed under the sort of microscope that only applies to the family of the first (or second) woman to be on a major ticket, that I heard a trace of regret. She never intended for her family to be hurt. It pained her so to think that her dream had been paid for by her kids and her husband. 

Years later, she would literally beam as she described how well her children were doing, the grandchildren she adored and even how she was teaching her beloved husband to make sandwiches so that if this terrible disease took her, he could take care of himself. 

Geraldine Ferraro taught me many things. She taught me courage and determination and perseverance. She taught me about grace under fire. But the most important thing she taught me was that love of family is the bedrock.  

"A woman of valor, who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value." We found her in Geraldine Ferraro. May she rest in peace. 


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.

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