04/07/2011 05:22 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2011

Ferraro and Palin: Campaign Arm Candy?

I was lucky enough to meet Geraldine Ferraro many times over the years, but I vividly remember the first time I set eyes on this phenomenal woman. It was 1984, and I was working in the Scheduling and Advance office for the Mondale campaign. We were at headquarters in San Francisco getting ready for the convention when Walter Mondale made the announcement from Minneapolis that this relatively unknown woman would be his running mate. The operative word in that sentence, of course, was "woman." I remember how all of us in that room all watched the TV and wiped our eyes, sniffling at various intervals. Another barrier had been removed; there was now another place for women to aspire to. It was palpable, this notion that women could truly now do anything. And I remember so clearly that the second the TV clicked off, every woman in the room picked up the phone and called their mothers -- including myself. It was very powerful. I still get chills thinking about it.

I remember going into the convention hall the night Ferraro was nominated. My mother, Molly, was a delegate and all the men in the New Jersey Delegation gave up their seats to the female delegates. There was such pandemonium that my mother and I had to stand on a chair to see. What struck me then, and still strikes me today, was the need women have to see themselves in these positions of power. Gerry was a reflection of each and every one of us. I also remember thinking it was interesting that she wore a white dress, as if the event was a communion, wedding or confirmation -- which, I supposed, it was. She was confirming women's existence, and reinforcing the idea that anything was possible.

That room was filled with so much hope, even though most of us knew that Mondale had no chance. Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity at the time -- he was a brilliant speaker, a skill Mondale sadly lacked. And, of course, there was the ensuing investigation of Ferraro and her family. I remember watching her press conference when she spoke about her husband's tax issues. She did extremely well -- she was poised and articulate -- but it took the air out of the campaign. I thought, "Well, we might as well take the $40 million dollars the Federal Government gave us and either burn it up or go to Rio." We knew we were done.

What was clear at the time was that the Mondale team wasn't prepared for what Gerry was going to become, what she would mean to the world. And she, of course, wasn't prepared for the terrible scrutiny she and her family would have to face. It made me so sad when I read in her obituary that she later said she would never have run for that office if she had known what it would do to her family; she didn't want to put her family under the microscope again. Like Sarah Palin after her, Gerry had no idea the toll that her nomination would take on her family.
Indeed, the similarities between the two women -- in this regard, anyway -- is really quite extraordinary. Both Mondale and McCain were male candidates who were not especially dynamic; both Ferraro and Palin were picked largely to infuse the men with some charisma and excitement. The women were trotted out because the campaigns didn't know what else to do: Arm candy for politicos.

And both women performed beautifully. Ferraro's events were extraordinary -- she attracted rock star crowds. So did Palin. But in neither case did the crowds translate into votes. And I would argue that it has something to do with cynicism of the people who selected these women. That they just said, "Put a woman on the ticket, that'll get all the women votes!" But it backfired. Women voters suspected she had been chosen mainly because of her gender, and that's not a reason to vote for someone.

It's pretty amazing that since 1984 only one other woman has been asked to be the number two on a presidential ticket. It's even more amazing that only one woman has actually run for president. So how do we get it right? I think it's that for a woman to make it in politics -- and land in the top spot, and not just as a man's second-in-command -- she has to have a mix the integrity of Geraldine Ferraro with the branding acumen of Sarah Palin and the brilliance of Hilary Clinton. She needs to step out in her own right. Women business owners need to so the same thing: They need to distinguish themselves as individual achievers, and not just as the "token" woman. They need to stand up on their own, be their own person, and shine on their own.

The next time a woman is nominated for office -- whether president or vice president -- there needs to be a cadre of senior-level women leaders who are there to embrace her, who will wrap their arms around her and help her deal with the scrutiny that is sure to come. They need a council of women to step in and teach her the ropes. I know from my own organization how incredibly important a peer group is to inspire, motivate -- and yes, even protect -- each other. If Geraldine Ferraro had had that, she just might have made it all the way to the White House.