Geraldine Ferraro: Women Candidates Still Face Sexism

Republican nominee John McCain's poll numbers have soared and his crowd sizes have surged since he announced he was adding Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to his ticket. But Geraldine Ferraro, the nation's first female candidate for vice president, says all the post-convention hoopla over Palin sounds very familiar. NEWSWEEK's Pat Wingert, who covered Ferraro for a Chicago newspaper when the New York congresswoman made her historic run in 1984, spoke with Ferraro late Friday. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The new NEWSWEEK Poll shows a 9-point swing for white women from Barack Obama to McCain since the Republican convention and the addition of Sarah Palin to McCain's ticket. What do you make of that?
Geraldine Ferraro:
In 1984, when [Democratic presidential nominee] Fritz [Mondale] gave me the nomination, he was 15 or 16 points behind, and his announcement brought us dead even with [President Ronald] Reagan in the polls that were done after the convention. … We drew huge crowds. The Secret Service told me that we had the largest crowds they'd seen since JFK. But many of those people came to bring their daughters to see the first woman nominated for a national office. I would see these men in the audience with their little girls on their shoulders, saying, "You got to see the first woman nominated. This is historic." Hillary [Clinton] saw the same thing, and Palin will too. It was exciting and people wanted to be a part of the candidacy. But it doesn't necessarily translate into votes. The polls will flip up and down and it doesn't necessarily translate into making a difference on Election Day and who becomes president."

So you don't think having a woman run as vice president will inspire more women to vote for McCain?
People never vote for vice president. ...With Hillary at the top of the ticket, I think it would have made a difference. Women would have seen this as a historic moment that they would have carried through to the voting booth. But with the vice president, I don't think it works that way. People vote for the presidential candidates, not the vice president. In 1983, they were voting on how they felt about the economy and the cold war and national security, and they happened to like Ronald Reagan. In order to turn out an incumbent, voters have to feel that they haven't done a good job, and that was hard to do with Ronald Reagan. People loved him, and voted for him, including women, even though our policies were better for women. The truth is, Ronald Reagan was terrible for women.

Did you ever think it would take 24 years before another woman appeared on a national ticket?
No, I didn't. Remember, we have had a lot of women run for president during the time since 1983: We had Pat Schroeder and Elizabeth Dole and Carol Moseley Braun and, of course, Hillary Clinton, who ran the kind of race and raised the kind of money that allowed her to go toe-to-toe with these guys. I thought we'd see a woman run for president and win before we'd see another woman nominated for vice president.

Through much of Hilary's run, and now during Sarah Palin's race, there have been charges of sexism. Would you characterize the way the media, and or the public, treated you in 1984, as sexist?
Yeah, it was, but I couldn't speak about it then. When I was watching that interview between Palin and Charlie Gibson [on ABC, Thursday, Sept. 11], I felt like it was deja vu all over again. Only in my case, it was Ted Koppel and "Meet the Press" and "Face the Nation," and each of them felt like they had to give me a foreign policy exam, and ask me if I was strong enough to push the button. These were questions they never asked men. But in 1984, I couldn't say, "Stop it," because I couldn't look like I was whining or upset about it. Even when [the media was] so sexist to Hillary, and we said something about it, they still thought we were whining or acting like sore losers. It wasn't until independent people like the Paley Center [for Media] said the campaign was sexist, then all of a sudden, people act concerned about it. It was fascinating to me to watch Anderson Cooper, before asking a question, make the point that he would ask the same question of a man, and act so nervous about it. But I never thought we'd have the opportunity to see another woman go through it, this same election cycle, after the press had been put on notice. Personally, I thought Charlie Gibson was very sexist.

I've read that political focus groups convened in 1984 and 1985 found that many women, particularly at-home mothers, found your candidacy personally threatening, and said they wouldn't vote for you for fear that it would make their husbands think less of them. Is that really true?
Yes. What we found was that some women felt intimidated by the candidacy. I thought, "God almighty, how did that happen?" … They thought it would somehow hurt them. That if I could do all these things--be a supermom or whatever--how would it look for them, if all they were doing were taking care of their children at home. Madeleine Albright [who later went on to become secretary of state under President Bill Clinton] was my foreign policy adviser, and she told me that she'd met a woman and asked her if she was going to vote for me, and the woman said no, because she knew she couldn't do that job, so how could I? Madeline asked her if her husband ever asked himself that question about male candidates, and she said never. … But that was 24 years ago, and I don't think it would happen now.

Do you expect to see other differences between Sarah Palin's experience and your own?
People look at Palin, and they can see, she dresses like a governor. But at the time I ran, there were no women in political leadership, so people had nothing to compare me to. I didn't ever wear pants, and the reason I didn't was that I didn't want people to think I was trying to be a man. I had to be very careful about things like that. The [New York] Times recently did a piece about McCain and Palin "touching" [when greeting each other onstage at the Republican Convention]. But Fritz and I, we never did anything that would look like we were holding hands or hugging or anything. No touching. Now, we see McCain and Palin hugging, even the guys are hugging other guys, for goodness sake. Nancy Pelosi can wear a pantsuit and give hugs. We've gotten used to all this in the last 24 years. But we were the first, so we had to be careful.

Does the political right's enthusiastic acceptance of Palin, a working mother with five children, including an infant, neutralize the threat of criticism for working mothers who run for political office in the future, in your opinion?
It depends on how well she does during the campaign. …Whether she wins or loses, if she does this well, it will have an impact on people's perceptions of the abilities of women. And she's done everything well so far--even that interview with Charlie Gibson. I think he had two agendas, including his own personal agenda. He and George Stephanopoulos had been criticized for being too soft with Hillary, so he was showing he could ask tough questions. But who the hell does he think he is, acting professorial and getting impatient and annoyed because she didn't know what the Bush Doctrine was. Frankly, I'd never heard it called the Bush Doctrine either, although I know what Bush's foreign policy is.

Looking at Hillary Clinton's and Sarah Palin's experiences so far, this campaign season, do you discern much progress for women candidates on the national stage?
I've been saying for 24 years that women's candidacies--I'm not talking about me, specifically, or Hillary or Governor Palin--but women's candidacies have a larger effect. They are like tossing a pebble into a lake, because of all the ripples that go out from there. ... That was the impact of the '84 campaign, and they still go on. Just today, I met a Republican woman and she told me that she was in the tub when she heard I'd been nominated, and she started to cry. People responded in all kinds of different ways. Many women told me that it inspired them to go back to school and made a lot of women think about running for public office. ... The fact that Hillary conducted herself so well during her campaign has to help Palin as well. It has to, and she doesn't have to win to have an impact. Every time a woman runs, women win.