On July 19, Ferraro strode onto the stage at San Francisco's Moscone Center to accept her party's nomination. She was greeted by roars of "Gerr-reee! Gerr-reee!" from what looked like a sea of jubilant women, many of them non-delegates who had finagled floor passes to witness this stirring moment in the nation's history.
"My name is Geraldine Ferraro," the then-48-year-old declared, for once slowing her usual staccato style of speech. "I stand before you to proclaim tonight, America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us."
But none of Ferraro's years in Congress prepared her for the hurricane that was coming.
The media clamored for interviews, amassing in such numbers that Capitol Hill police roped off her office to keep them at bay. More than 50,000 letters and gifts -- ranging from books to a boxing glove -- poured in by election day.
Within two weeks of her nomination, the flak began to hit.
Critics blasted her for taking the statutory exemption to withhold information about her husband's finances on disclosure statements required of members of Congress. And John Zaccaro was attacked for improperly borrowing money from the estate of an 84-year-old widow. He later was removed as conservator. In subsequent weeks the public would learn that Ferraro had improperly loaned money to her first House campaign in 1978, and that Zaccaro and Ferraro had underpaid their taxes that year.
In the blur of campaigning, Ferraro approved a news release that mistakenly said she would release her husband's tax returns. When she subsequently refused to release the returns, the candidate with a dangerous tendency toward flippancy told a reporter: "You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it's like."
Immediately she knew she had made a terrible gaffe. She had meant that Italian men tended to be private about their personal affairs, but her remark was interpreted as an ethnic slur. It also fueled debate about Ferraro's toughness, with critics contending if she wasn't strong enough to oppose her husband, she couldn't stand up to the Soviets.
Media scrutiny of her husband was so intense that reporters even began to investigate allegations that his father had once rented space to a member of the Gambino crime family.
(Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee later observed that the charges, which never amounted to much, would not have been made if she had been "somebody named Jenkins. You'd have to be from another planet not to think that," he told The Times in a post-election analysis.)
In late August, she released a detailed financial disclosure statement and faced the national media. She earned favorable reviews for her responses to 90 minutes of often hostile questioning ("Ferraro passes a vital test," went a cover line in Time) but her candidacy never recovered.
In September, Ferraro began fending off attacks on a new front. New York's Archbishop O'Connor lashed out at her stand on abortion rights and said she had misrepresented church teachings on abortion. He even held open the possibility of excommunication. Anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups clashed at her rallies.
The Italian American community did not rise to her defense, even when other critics attempted to smear her with allegations of underworld dealings. Some commentators decried the sexism they said was fueling the attacks. Noting the silence of the Italian American community, syndicated columnist Richard Reeves observed: "The stoning of Geraldine Ferraro in the public square goes on and on, and no one steps forward to help or protest -- not even one of her kind
. The sons of Italy and fathers of the Roman Catholic Church are silent or are too busy reaching for bigger rocks
. Heresy! Mafia! Men are putting women in their place."
Ferraro did well when she faced then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in debate. He ignored her request that she be addressed as "Congresswoman," however, and called her "Mrs. Ferraro" instead. Shortly before the debate, she was insulted by Barbara Bush who called her "that four-million-dollar -- I can't say it, but it rhymes with 'rich.' " (Ferraro and Zaccaro's net worth had been reported at $3.8 million.)
She was discouraged by news coverage that she felt rarely reflected the enthusiasm and massive crowds she encountered on the campaign trail. "They were far less interested in what I had to say about the life-and-death issues facing the nation than they were about what I was wearing, how I looked that day, whether or not I cried, and what was happening in my marriage," she recalled in her memoir.
Reagan, one of the most popular presidents in history, wound up with an 18-point victory, aided in part by women, who supported him in greater numbers than they had the Mondale-Ferraro ticket. Post-election analyses found that Ferraro had neither greatly helped nor hindered the Democrats' chances.
What later became clear to Ferraro was how ambivalent the electorate -- particularly women -- had been about her candidacy.
Those attitudes led Ferraro to make a controversial appearance in a 1991 commercial for Pepsi-Cola, in which she endorsed being a mother over being in politics. Feminists shouted betrayal.
The commercial apparently did little to bolster her chances the following year when she ran for the Democratic nomination for Senate. She lost the 1992 Democratic primary and again in the 1998 primary, her last bid for elected office.
Fatigued after the primary, she went for a medical checkup and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
She was determined to remain active despite the ups and down of her health. At President Clinton's request, she served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. She found a forum for her views on television as the liberal co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" and as a Fox political analyst. In 2004, she helped found grannyvoter.org with other female activists in their 60s to encourage grandparents to become politically involved. She also worked for a number of lobbying firms.
Later, Ferraro was a feisty advocate for Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, garnering criticism for remarking during the heated 2008 primary season that Obama had an advantage because he is black. The remark was perceived as racist, and in the ensuing controversy, Ferraro resigned from her voluntary position on Clinton's campaign finance committee, but she did not back away from her view of how race and gender were playing out in the campaign.
"Sexism is a bigger problem" than racism in the United States, Ferraro told the Daily Breeze in the March 2008 story that made her a liability for the Clinton campaign. "It's OK to be sexist in some people's minds. It's not OK to be racist."
She harbored no regrets at having tried to become the first female vice president, despite how grueling the struggle was. What women needed to remember, she told an interviewer in 2004, was a simple fact of politics: "If you don't run, you can't win."
In addition to her husband and three children, Ferraro, who lived in New York City, is survived by eight grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.