Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011), bad girls, and good girls

It’s been quite a week for celebrity women’s deaths:  first Elizabeth Taylor, and now the first woman to run for Vice President on a major party ticket in the United States, Geraldine Ferraro.  I thought of the several obits I’ve seen that Joan Walsh’s was the very best, bar none.  She’s someone who gets both the New York political and national women’s historical context of Ferraro’s life, her 1984 candidacy, and her unfortunate remarks about Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. (Just go read Walsh–do it!  Do it now!) 

And now, something I should have posted in honor of Elizabeth Taylor but seems relevant for Ferraro too:  Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” (from the album of the same name):  Oh make me over/I’m all I want to be/A walking study/in Demonology.  From one bad girl to two others, as it were:

I really wish I could have written “from two bad girls to two others,” but it’s my great shortcoming that I am terminally a Good Girl. Oh, I occasionally lip off, but I’m always surprised when someone gets angry. I really am extremely conflict adverse, and I think I was in fact the only teenager in the 1980s who “just said ‘no.'” I think I admire Courtney Love and other bad girls because they can do things I’ll never do.

Tina Fey wrote recently in the New Yorker, “Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.” (Sorry–the article is behind a subscription wall.) Sadly, it’s not just comedy. I’m sure you all would be able to list the arts, professions, and industries where’s that’s still true. For example, I know my sister-in-law in management consulting would say the same of her field, as she described her position at work as “the only woman left” when we had dinner last week. My friend the Pediatric ICU attending would concur, too. Most humanities departments are still male-majority (or even male supermajority at my uni), and the humanities and some of the social sciences are the only departments that seem to hire and promote women in academia.

In the 27 years since Ferraro’s run, we’ve had exactly zero Italian-American presidential or vice-presidential candidates, exactly two other Catholics run for either office (John Kerry and Joe Biden; Michael Dukakis should maybe get some recognition for his Greek heritage and Greek Orthodoxy? That was new!), and one other woman (Sarah Palin). As you might have guessed, I’m really not big on proclamations that “glass ceilings” have been broken, when they’ve barely been knocked on politely. Jeezy Creezy, people: we historians still make a big deal out of the fact that John F. Kennedy was our “first Catholic president,” but he remains the only one, and he didn’t even get to serve a full term!

So bring on the bad girls.

0 thoughts on “Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011), bad girls, and good girls

  1. two thoughts:

    (1) Dukakis deserves credit for being even weirder than that, because he’s not just Greek, he’s also Vlach. So he’s a minority of a minority.

    (2) We’re another supermajority department- 5 women out of 23 faculty. We’ve made two new hires in the last two years, both men. And all five women work on modern topics- nothing before 1650. It leads to some weird skews in the curriculum, with almost no representation of female (let alone feminist) perspectives.


  2. Got to meet her once in my aunt’s living room in Great Neck, NY. She seemed like, and I mean this in the best, possible way, a tough old broad. She wasn’t a bad girl, in my understanding of that term as something like a rule breaker. Rather, a tough old broad, as my mother taught me, is someone who memorizes the rule book your wrote and then beats you at your own game and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. My mother, my aunt, and their peer-group of fifties-housewives, sixties radicalized, seventies organized, self-identified tough old broads, used to kick some serious butt. As my mom once said about a tough Pentagon base-closing deal she was involved in for public housing reasons, “when we walked in, they thought they were dealing with little old ladies, when we walked out victorious, they knew they’d been run over by the tough old broads.” Here’s to age, experience, toughness, and surviving.


  3. I’ll never forget what an ex said to me upon our break-up after three months of dating, which was something along the lines of, “I thought you were going to be a good time, but you’re actually, like, really *good* and, like, serious.” In other words, I’m a good girl whose curse is to be mistaken for a bad girl and then to disappoint people when it turns out I’m good. That said, I’m a loud-mouth who says bad girl things, and I seek out conflict, so who knows what to do with me.

    That obit was also the best I’ve read, and I’m with you on having little patience for the proclamations about glass ceilings having been busted through. In my English department, my feeling is that the glass ceiling is only a couple of feet higher than it might have been 30 years ago, meaning that all my female colleagues who are senior to me are withering away at associate professor. It would depress me if it didn’t make me so angry.

    I was 10 during the ’84 election, and I remember being so totally excited about Ferraro – the first candidate that even registered in my brain in my lifetime. It was the first time I cared about who got elected. And I remember being devastated that it didn’t happen, and then thinking, but oh, now women will run for vice president all the time. Surely I could be vice president! Let’s just say that I’m a whole hell of a lot more cynical now than I was when I was 10, not only about my chances of becoming vice president (obviously!), but also about the chance of women in general actually being elected for such a role in this country.


  4. Wow, Western Dave and Dr. Crazy–those comments are great tributes to tough old broads, and testimonials to why we still need them now.

    I think most of us are more cynical than we were at 10. All children are whig historians, and their natural solipsism protects them until they can handle the truth.


  5. She’s someone who gets both the New York political and national women’s historical context of Ferraro’s life, her 1984 candidacy, and her unfortunate remarks about Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign.

    Harping on that last bit, with very little about a national women’s historical context. Walsh uses Ferraro’s comments about Obama as her lede, beginning and ending the essay with them. I didn’t care for what Ferraro said and won’t defend her words, but it seems odd–and misplaced–to conclude an obituary for her with “As Jesse Jackson might put it, God wasn’t finished with her yet, and She gave Ferraro one last role the Democrat might not have chosen for herself.”

    One last role after the 1984 loss. That would be as a petty, slightly racist naysayer re: the most successful black politician in U.S. history? I dunno, I thought Ferraro was more than that.


  6. Vlachs are descendants of Romanized Thracians and Illyrians. They’re culturally akin to Romanians, and in their own languages call themselves something like romani. Vlach is derived from Wallachia, which is an old term for Romania. They’re a traditionally sheep-raising culture. There are small populations in northern Greece and throughout the Balkans. Generally, they occupied marginal land, although there was some discrimination during the post-WWI population exchanges. In the US, they usually refer to themselves as Greek or Romanian, because no one knows what the hell a Vlach is.


  7. LadyProf, I actually think you’re right about your comment, though I also appreciate the rhetorical neatness of Walsh’s piece. Somehow, I came away from Walsh’s piece feeling like it put Ferraro’s comments in their place, and tried to account for her as a whole person. All the other obits I read were of the “women are totally equal to men and Geraldine Ferraro is proof!” variety, and they left a sour taste in my mouth, as they felt like a 21st century recasting of “you’ve come a long way, baby.”


  8. Word, Dr. Crazy. I think addressing Ferraro’s 2008 comments was entirely unavoidable, in large part because 1) they’re the most recent thing she said or did that made major news, and 2) for a lot of young people, that was their introduction to her. I thought Walsh’s intent in her obit was clear when she noted that people in Obama’s campaign noted how he benefited from his singular position in the 2008 field, and I thought she helped rehabilitate the feminist content of Ferraro’s comment. She wasn’t just claiming that Obama was “lucky” to be black, she was pointing out that he was lucky to be a man, because women pols have never gotten the breaks he got as a man.

    Rustonite–thanks for the intel. I read that novel The Historian a few years ago, and I think that’s one of the ethnic groups she writes about although she doesn’t talk about the Vlachs being in northern Greece.


  9. I am old enough to remember the energy that the Ferraro campaign unleashed — at least among women. It was really amazing. She was so refreshing. Mondale was OK, but Ferraro rocked.

    I’ve always been a good girl in most ways, but while I’m conflict averse, I can be stubborn and I fight for what I believe in. Because I’m a good girl (and I look like one) people are sometimes surprised at my feminism etc.


  10. Historiann, I’ll paste the Ferraro quote:

    “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.”

    Maybe Ferraro meant to say that Obama was lucky to be a man, unmodified, as you suggest. But most people heard her to say he was lucky to be a black man. Ferraro specifically said that a white man would have been less lucky.

    Unfortunate, as you note; maybe even racist. But these sentences weren’t the sum of Ferraro’s career, even though Walsh put them at the beginning and the end of her piece, like headstones. I agree that the Obama remark had to be included for the sake of readers who don’t remember 1984. But a better essay would have said more.


  11. Ferraro had three children at the time when she was running for president and she often took them with her during the campaign which caused that there were a lot of men even among her colleagues who on several occasions questioned her ability to lead the country.


  12. It angers me to this day that when it turned out that Geraldine Ferraro wasn’t a pauper, that her family had followed the “American dream,” up and out of a lower economic class to some measure of wealth, she was castigated for it and by none other than Barbara Bush (whose clan acquired wealth long enough ago that we don’t know any more what they did to get it). No matter what you do, if you are a woman, you will be criticized for it.


  13. IIRC, Kitty Kelly’s book on the Bushes suggested that Barbara’s family money was pretty modest, as was the Bush money. It was the Walkers (George H.W. Bush’s mohter’s family) who really had the dough. (The compound at Kennebunkport is on a spit of land known as “Walker Point.”)

    But I still think your major point is valid, truffula. I guess family just money looks cleaner and smells fresher to some people even today than going to all of the trouble to make it yourself.


  14. Here’s the bigger quote:

    “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

    I think she’s right: the country was caught up in the concept of a Black man becoming President. I would add what I think is implicit in Ferraro’s comment: the country was caught up in that concept in a way it was not caught up in the concept of a white woman becoming President.

    I think it’s fair to use Ferraro’s comment as a jumping off point to discuss WHY the country was not equally caught up in the historic possibility of a white woman becoming President.

    Because I think her comment brings up really thorny issues of the intersection of race and gender, in particular how white feminist women specifically have been made the go-to boogiemen for racism in a way that leftist men/organizations have almost entirely avoided. Is that because leftist men/organizations are less racist? Or is it because male supremacy insulates them? I would argue the latter.

    I also don’t think it’s out-of-bounds for feminists to really think about and discuss whether race or gender or neither was a more constricting factor in the 2008 primaries and election. I’m not presuming the outcome of that inquiry. I’m just saying it’s a valuable inquiry for learning how the mechanisms of white and male supremacy work and interact. But that inquiry is short-circuited by dismissing Ferraro’s comment as wholesale racism.


  15. Eveningsun–I’m going to see Anglea Davis speak at the University of Northern Colorado in a few weeks! And she counts, big time, but I wouldn’t call the CP a “major political party” in the U.S., now or historically.

    Emma: word. Women’s liberation is never seen as necessary, or as valuable, or as good and proper the way men’s liberationist movements are. The Left lionizes and celebrates the Civil Rights and Gay Rights movements, whereas it still is ambivalent or resentful of feminism.

    “The Left” always has a revisionist view of its own history with respect to feminism, too. It never wants to embrace feminism as it is, only the feminist accomplishments of previous generations. (Like this: In 1950: “Well, of course women and men should be educated equally, so long as women aren’t competing for the same jobs.” In 2000: “Well, of course women should have equal educational and professional opportunities, but they have them now so we’re all postfeminist.” Etc. That’s the male left for you: at least two generations behind the times when it comes to teh wimminz.


  16. Historiann: Given what I remember about women’s education in the 1950s, it was not “Women and men should be educated equally…” but “White women should have every opportunity to meet a college educated man, just not while taking the same courses he does.” Women were shunted into new home economics departments and/or education departments as opposed to liberal arts or sciences. I’ll have to recheck Friedan and May but I’m currently killing time at the car dealer having recall work done. Semantic quibble, is there a difference between men’s liberation and men’s liberationist? Having grown up under the idea that women’s liberation was men’s liberation, at least in terms of men being freed from harmful gender ideals that stunted men’s human potential, especially in terms of non-market values, it just struck me as an odd phrasing. I do realize that the number of 40 something guys who grew up in Free to Be You and Me households and still remember those lessons is only marginally >0. So I might be splitting hairs here for an audience of one.


  17. I was 21, it was my first time voting, and there she was.
    I will never forget it. For me, Mondale was not the star, he was there so she could run.

    It is sickening and heartbreaking to see how far they’ve pushed us back. The Backlash was real – 20 years later I think the sexism was more visible, more acceptable and much worse.

    I liked Ferraro’s letter in support of Hillary Clinton.
    All she did was tell the truth.

    All this talk about ‘good girl’ and ‘bad girl’ reminds me of the whore/virgin split. I am neither. It’s hard for people to place me. And for that I am grateful 🙂


  18. Pingback: Gender and performance in grad school : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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