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Madeleine M. Kunin Headshot

Thanks for Paving the Way, Gerry

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My most vivid memory of Geraldine Ferraro, who died recently, is when we were on the stage together at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington for a Democratic rally. It was the fall of 1984. She was making a campaign stop in her race for vice president and I was running for Governor. The photo of the two of us, hands raised and clasped high in the air in a V for victory sign still hangs on a wall in my house.

After the speeches the crowd gathered around us. One man, with a little girl perched on his shoulders was eager to introduce his young daughter to both of us. "I want her to know what women can do," he said, as we both took turns hugging the child.

We knew we were making history. The New York Times headline for Gerry Ferraro's obituary declared: "She ended the men's club of national politics." Yes she did, but what we did not know is that the club would issue few invitations to women candidates for the highest offices.

It took 24 years before another woman, Sarah Palin, would be nominated by her party to seek the vice presidency. And we thought that a woman would certainly be elected president of the United States in our life times.

Ferraro's resume was stronger than Palin's, having been an experienced three-term Congresswoman from Queens, before she was selected by Walter Mondale to be his running mate. Still, she was barraged by criticism about her qualifications and her stand on the issues. I remember a marathon two hour press conference about her husband's finances where she answered every tiny detail before a relentless paper shuffling press corps.

Her performance was considered a triumph, but the idea that she was culpable for her husband's actions continued to stick despite the fact that no charges were ever brought against him.

In one debate with George H. W. Bush, the incumbent vice president, he said words to the effect of "What does she know about throw weights?" in a blatant attempt to show her lack of knowledge about military hardware, and therefore, unfit to be the understudy for commander in chief.

As I followed the campaign, I could not help but ask myself, would they have treated a man the same way?

It's a question I continued to ask when Hillary Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. All that emphasis on hair, hemlines and husbands means that women have to lug that extra baggage from one campaign stop to another. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that the percentage of women in the Congress continues to be so low -- now just 16 percent.

Still there is good news. The first women who broke barriers will make it easier for others. In states like Vermont women are almost equal members of the club, comprising 38 percent of the legislature.

And that little girl who met Gerry Ferraro 24 years ago might imagine a great future for herself, because she met a woman running for vice president. Gerry, we're sorry to lose you, but thank you for clearing the way.

Madeleine M. Kunin was the first woman governor of Vermont, and served as the Deputy Secretary of Education and Ambassador to Switzerland under President Bill Clinton. She is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power, and is currently a Marsh Scholar Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont and lectures on history and women's studies. She also serves as president of the board of the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), a nongovernmental organization that she founded in 1991. She lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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