Dear Geraldine Ferraro

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Last month, awaiting your appearance in Newcomb Hall Ballroom, I remembered another auditorium in San Francisco two decades ago. You were the Democratic candidate for vice president, the first woman to run on a major party’s national ticket.

In 1984, I had finished my first year at the law school at the University of Virginia—my first foray back to school after 22 years as a wife and a mother and multiple jobs. Thirty-three percent of my class was female, then an all-time high for the law school. That summer, I interned for Public Advocates, an environmental and social rights organization in San Francisco, and I was a delegate to the Democratic Convention.

About to be nominated as a candidate for vice president, you were a plainspoken New Yorker unashamed to tout women’s roles in politics. You paved the way for me and other women. Serving first as a district attorney and then in the U.S. Congress, you joked that your teenage children got rid of you during their adolescence.

1984 was also the year of Jessie Jackson’s debut as a politician and Gary Hart’s swan song. In 1984, future California Senator Dianne Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco. 1984 was also the year I also decided to run for office…someday.

At the ’84 convention, my favorite daily activity was the women’s caucus that met in the church auditorium. Our leaders were political luminaries: Ms magazine founder and editor Gloria Steinem, congresswomen Pat Schroeder, Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug—all pioneers and household names among Democratic women.

Do you remember the caucus, Geraldine?

The first day, Barbara Mikulski, Pat Schroeder and Barbara Skinner (of Washington, D.C.) spoke in turn for their candidates—Mondale, Hart and Jackson. When you appeared, you talked about the need to elect more women to office—to Congress and to the White House. In 2006 we still have not had a woman—or a person of color—even on the ticket since 1984.

Foreign policy was a concern in 1984 as in 2006. The convention debated and supported a “No First Strike policy,” 360 degrees from the current administration’s strategy of “pre-emptive” wars. You spoke against the United States’ deepening involvement in Central America, and there was quiet in the auditorium as we women contemplated sending our children into wars that could be avoided. The women were the conscience of the Democratic Party. I felt great being a woman in America and a woman in my party.

Do you remember the “open mic” sessions at the 1984 caucus? Woman after woman got up to speak. What I remember were their introductions.

“I’m a member of the County Board of Commissioners.”

“I’m running for the General Assembly.”

I began to believe that politics was a door not closed to me. By 1990, I was elected to City Council; in 1991, I ran for Congress in a conservative Republican district, but I thought I had a shot, given the disaffection with professional politicians in Congress. That was before the “Iraqi hit ad”: Following the first Gulf War, my opponent ran an ad that opened with a picture of a demonstration in front of the Capitol with a prominent sign reading “Victory to Iraq.” What can only be described as a mug shot of me was superimposed on a rally I never attended, thus depicting me as an ally of Saddam, while George Allen was a pal of the first George Bush.

At the University last month, I remembered the “good, bad and ugly” of politics—the issues, the campaigns, and the misleading ads, the latter currently in full force. You recounted: In 1984, no women served on the Supreme Court, no women were in the president’s cabinet and no women had been elected on a statewide level. Today, two women have served on the Supreme Court, 14 women in the U.S. Senate, 680 in state legislatures. Still, only 22 women have served on presidential cabinets and only 79 have been elected to statewide offices. Although women are a majority of the population, only 25 percent of those elected to state legislatures are female.

Encouraging younger women to step forward into politics is the purpose of UVA’s National Symposium on Women in Politics. A student asked what’s the first step for her generation to enter politics.

Do something for a cause you care about, you advised. See what matters and join forces with others and speak up. 

“If you speak up,” you said, “you may not win, but you’ll have input on the decisions that matter.”

Thanks, Geraldine.

Kay Slaughter is an environmental attorney who has served as a city councilor and mayor of Charlottesville. She maintains a blog at http://rivannawriter.blogspot.com.

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