Geraldine Anne Ferraro was a public school teacher, attorney, congresswoman, Democrat, and the first female vice presidential candidate representing a major American political party. She was born in New York state in 1935 to an Italian American mother, Antonetta (Corrieri), a seamstress, and Dominik Ferraro, an immigrant from the Campania region of Italy. Dominik was the owner of two restaurants.
Ferraro attended Catholic school and was eight when her father died of a heart attack. She attended college with a scholarship and, at times, held three jobs and earned a degree in English in 1956 and passed an exam to become a licensed school teacher. While teaching, she attended law school and was one of only two women in her graduating class. Ferraro married realtor and businessman John Zaccaro and the couple had three children. She spent time at local Democratic clubs, got involved in local politics and campaigns and was appointed an assistant district attorney for Queens County in New York and became a strong advocate for abused children and renowned as a tough prosecutor.
In 1978, Ferraro was elected to congress and became a protégé of House Speaker Tip O’Neil and rose rapidly in the party hierarchy. Named to powerful congressional committees, she was viewed as tough and ambitious. She focused much of her legislative attention on equity for women in pensions and retirement plans and worked on environmental issues. Her pro-choice views conflicted with the Catholic Church as well as many of her constituents.
In 1984, Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee for president, selected Ferraro to be his Vice Presidential candidate. She was the first woman to run on a major party national ticket in the U.S. and her acceptance speech came to be listed as number 56 in the American Top 100 Speeches of the 20th century. She gained widespread media attention and journalists began to investigate the finances of her husband, John Zaccaro, and their separate tax returns. Zaccaro did not understand the public exposure that his wife’s position brought and refused to release his financial information at first. Besieged by television and newspapers concerning finances and ethnic background, the Philadelphia Inquirer attempted to link Zaccaro to organized crime figures. Statements and disclosures hurt Ferraro’s image. No campaign issue during the 1984 presidential campaign received more media attention than Ferraro’s finances and the exposure diminished her stardom. She was also the butt of sharp criticism from the Catholic Church on the abortion issue. Mondale and Ferraro lost the election in a landslide and Ferraro failed to carry her own congressional district.
Ferraro ran twice for the senate and, during the Clinton administration, was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In 2008, she campaigned on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. She died at age 75 in 2011, 12 years after her diagnosis of multiple myeloma.