In the fall of 1983, a handful of women ate Chinese takeout in a tiny Washington, D.C. apartment, half of them seated on folding chairs. Each of the fortune cookies had been threaded with customized slips that hinted at the real reason the women were there: to get the first woman nominated as vice president by a major party.
“You will win big in ’84,” read the piece of paper inside Queens congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro’s cookie. The third-term representative, a second-generation Italian-American, was the evening’s guest of honor; the other women had concluded she was the right woman to do the glass-shattering. Their question to Ferraro: Was she game?
“This was not the power scene you would picture,” remembers Joanne Howes, then the executive director of the Women’s Vote Project and a member of the small group of behind-the-scenes activists, known as “Team A,” who worked to propel Ferraro into history books. At the time, national politics was even more an old boys’ club than it is today; just 24 of the 535 voting members of Congress and no governors were women. By those standards, the notion of a female vice president was audacious. “There’s no way,” Ferraro herself had said, with typical candor, at a closed meeting at the National Women’s Caucus three months earlier, “any presidential candidate is going to choose a woman as a running mate unless he’s 15 points behind in the polls.”
That’s almost exactly what happened. In the Democratic attempt to unseat President Ronald Reagan, former Vice President Walter Mondale, lagging by some 12 to 19 points, selected Ferraro as his running mate. The election ended poorly for the Democrats: Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, won in a rout, with all but one state voting for the incumbents.
Ferraro’s candidacy, however, showed the public that a woman could campaign stride-for-stride for national office. It would not be until 24 years later, when Senator John McCain chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, that another woman would appear on a major party’s ticket. And now, 12 years after Palin, former Vice President Joe Biden’s promise to select a woman as his running mate will make her the second Democratic woman to become a vice presidential nominee. Looking back at Ferraro’s candidacy puts in harsh relief the strides women in politics have made as well as the gendered relics that remain part of the political conversation today. Here, compiled from sources including Ferraro’s memoir, contemporary news clippings and interviews with players who were part of this history, is a look back at Ferraro’s exhilarating, much-scrutinized path to becoming a political standard-bearer.