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Originally published Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 9:53 AM

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First female VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro dies at 75

Geraldine Ferraro, the savvy New York Democrat who was embraced as a symbol of women's equality in 1984 when she became the first woman nominated for vice president by a major party, died Saturday. She was 75.

The Washington Post

Geraldine Ferraro, the New York Democrat who was embraced as a symbol of women's equality in 1984 when she became the first woman nominated for vice president by a major party, died Saturday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She was 75.

The cause was complications from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that she had battled for 12 years, her family said.

Ms. Ferraro was a three-term member of the House from the New York City borough of Queens when she was tapped by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale to join his ticket. Democrats were elated by the choice, which was seen as a landmark achievement in U.S. politics and as a possible way to derail the re-election hopes of President Reagan.

With Ms. Ferraro on the ticket, Democrats hoped to exploit a so-called gender gap between the parties. A Newsweek poll taken after she was nominated showed men favoring Reagan-Bush 58 percent to 36 percent but women supporting Mondale-Ferraro 49 percent to 41 percent.

For the first time a major candidate for national office talked about abortion with the phrase "If I were pregnant," or about foreign policy with the personal observation "as the mother of a draft-age son ... " She wore pearls and silk dresses and publicly worried that her slip was showing.

Ms. Ferraro's nomination energized the party faithful at the Democratic National Convention at Moscone Center in San Francisco, where she received an eight-minute ovation, and she proved to be a dynamic presence on the campaign trail, where she often drew larger, more enthusiastic crowds than Mondale.

"This candidacy is not just a symbol, it's a breakthrough," she said during the campaign. "It's not just a statement, it's a bond between women all over America."

Despite the historic nature of Ms. Ferraro's candidacy, the Democratic ticket failed to inspire widespread support.

Campaign missteps — including accusations of financial impropriety on the part of Ferraro's husband — contributed to an overwhelming loss for Mondale and Ms. Ferraro as Reagan swept 49 of 50 states. The Democratic ticket won only Mondale's Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

Reagan won 525 of 538 electoral votes, the largest number in any presidential election, and claimed 59 percent of the popular vote, including 55 percent of the ballots cast by women.

Ms. Ferraro never again held elected office, but she left a lasting impact on the voting public and on future officeholders. When she made her vice-presidential run, 24 women were serving in the House and Senate. Twenty-seven years later, there are 91.

In 2008, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became the second woman to be a vice-presidential candidate for a major party when she was nominated as John McCain's Republican running mate.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and in 2007, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., became the first woman to serve as speaker of the House.

President Obama praised Ms. Ferraro as "a trailblazer who broke down barriers for women, and Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life."

He said of his own two daughters: "Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live."

Mondale remembered his former running mate Saturday as "a remarkable woman and a dear human being."

"She was a pioneer in our country for justice for women and a more open society. She broke a lot of molds and it's a better country for what she did," he said.

Ms. Ferraro's rise to political prominence was as sudden and surprising as her later fall from political grace. In 1978, after serving as an assistant prosecutor in the New York City borough of Queens, she was elected to Congress, campaigning under the slogan, "Finally, a tough Democrat."

She quickly became a favorite of then-Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, D-Mass., and vaulted into the House hierarchy. She was easily re-elected in 1980 and 1982 and became a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

Her signature legislative victory in the 1980s was her sponsorship of the Economic Equity Act, which outlawed unequal treatment of women in workplace salaries and pensions. She failed, however, in her attempt to secure passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1982, she was appointed to the powerful House Budget Committee, and two years later she chaired the platform committee of the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

Detractors in her own party sometimes found her too willing to compromise or too willing to play pork-barrel politics to benefit her constituents, and her support for abortion rights proved controversial with Roman Catholic Church leaders.

More than 10,000 convention delegates and onlookers erupted in sustained applause when Ms. Ferraro was formally nominated on July 19, 1984. Not only was she the first woman nominated by a major party for national office, but she remains the only Italian American on a presidential ticket.

Within weeks, however, she came under scrutiny when her husband, real-estate investor John Zaccaro, backed off an early pledge to release his tax records. Ms. Ferraro compounded the gaffe by saying, "You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it's like."

She and her husband had an estimated net worth of $4 million and, when they ultimately released their returns, hastily paid more than $50,000 in back taxes and interest.

She found herself caught in a campaign of not-so-veiled innuendo.

"As the first Italian-American on a national ticket," Ms. Ferraro wrote in her 1985 autobiography, "Ferraro: My Story," she expected to "be vulnerable to the inevitable and reprehensible attempts to link us with organized crime. ... Still, never did I anticipate the fury of the storm we now found ourselves in."

She famously tangled with George H.W. Bush and his wife. Ms. Ferraro suggested Bush and his family were wealthy and therefore didn't understand the problems faced by ordinary voters. That comment irked Barbara Bush, who referred to Ms. Ferraro as "the $4 million — I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich." Barbara Bush later apologized and said the word she was searching for was "witch."

Geraldine Anne Ferraro was born in Newburgh, N.Y., on Aug. 26, 1935. Her father ran a nightclub, but Ms. Ferraro did not know until she ran for vice president that he had been arrested in 1944 and charged with running a numbers racket. He died of a heart attack on the day his trial was to begin.

Two of Ms. Ferraro's older brothers also died: one in infancy, another as a 3-year-old passenger killed in a car accident. Her mother moved to the South Bronx to raise her daughter and another son while working as a seamstress.

Ms. Ferraro, who kept her maiden name in honor of her mother, skipped seventh grade and graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in 1956. She was an elementary-school teacher in New York while attending law school at Fordham University at night, graduating in 1960.

After becoming an assistant district attorney in Queens, she helped form a Special Victims Bureau in 1975, which handled cases of child abuse, rape and domestic violence. Ms. Ferraro said the experience transformed her political thinking from being a "small-c conservative" to a dedicated liberal.

"I have seen firsthand what poverty can do to people's lives," she said in 1984, "and I just can't, in good conscience, not do something about it."

Ms. Ferraro launched campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 1992 and 1998 but lost both times in the Democratic primary.

Ms. Ferraro, who lived in New York City, is survived by her husband; three children; and eight grandchildren.

Material from The New York Times, The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

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