The XX Factor

Geraldine Ferraro, RIP

Forgive me for mentioning Geraldine Ferraro’s appearance-I acknowledge women politicians, women in all walks of professional life, come under a judgmental glare for how they look in ways men never do. But I interviewed Ferraro once, while she was in Congress but before she was tapped to be Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate, about clothes. This was the era when women, pushing into professions previously closed to them, were advised to look as much like men as possible.  We were encouraged to wear boxy jacket and skirt versions of men’s suits. White shirts, buttoned-at-the neck, were often sealed with floppy string bow ties. Young female lawyers dressed as faux men could be seen swarming Washington.

I went to Capitol Hill to try to talk to the handful of women in Congress about their advice on how to dress while competing in a man’s world. I had no appointment, but one of the Hill employees went to the House floor and conveyed my request for an interview to Ferraro. It was a spring day and when she came out she was wearing strappy open-toed shoes that showed off her bright red toenails. I asked her about them-a violation of every rule!-and she laughed and said that while it was important for a women to look professional, why bother trying to look like a man? She added that it was fun that we could show off red toenails and they couldn’t. The New York Times obituary notes (gratuitously, yes, but I understand) that when she accepted the vice presidential nomination, she was “wearing a white dress she had purchased on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.” Ferraro never felt the need to hide the pleasure she felt in being female, nor did she coyly try to pretend she didn’t want to get to the top.

Reading over Ferraro’s obits today, I was struck by what it must have taken for women of her era-she died at 75 after more than a decade of living with multiple myeloma-to transcend the message that raising children well was the best way to channel their own ambitions. She started out as a school teacher and while teaching she attended law school at night, one of three women in her class. She married, had three children, and did pro bono work while they were little. When she was almost 40-using her maiden name as a tribute to the widowed mother who raised her-she was sworn in as an assistant district attorney. Four years later she was elected to Congress.

In part because of women like Ferraro, we are no longer told, as she was not so long ago, that our presence in a law school class means stealing a place from a man. But women still struggle to figure out how to scale the professional heights while being the kinds of mothers we want to be. What I love about her life story is that it says we don’t have to follow some rigid script. That there’s time to take the bar exam, read bedtime stories, push legislation, and paint your toenails red.

Photograph of Geraldine Ferraro by Don Emmert AFP/Getty Images.