Friday, April 8, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Geraldine Ferraro's 1984 acceptance speech


Geraldine Ferraro died last month, and in death, her accomplishments sounded just as historic as they were when they happened--but with the benefit of history. Her acceptance speech for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1984 may seem late in coming. But while many women had run for president before her, she was the first woman nominated by a major party for the vice-presidential role, as Walter Mondale's running mate. Not until Sarah Palin's nomination two dozen years later was that repeated.

In many ways, the nation wasn't ready for her, and yet her persistence helped set precedents and markers for thousands of other women. Today, we are still marveling when a female member of Congress talks about her own abortion on the floor of the House of Representatives. Ferraro paved that road, while tackling a grueling speaking schedule. From her obituary:
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. She also traveled a 55,000-mile campaign trail, spoke in 85 cities and raised $6 million.
From coverage of her funeral:
Mr. Mondale said that the path Ms. Ferraro took was not an easy one. During a vice-presidential debate, “George Bush offered to explain to her foreign policy,” Mr. Mondale recalled. “Every day, she was patronized in a way not experienced by male candidates. If they ever make another movie about true grit, it should be about Gerry"....There were two women in the Senate when Ms. Ferraro became the vice-presidential candidate, Mr. Mondale said; there are 17 now, along with 77 in the House, 6 governors and 1,700 state legislators. Ms. Ferraro’s candidacy “took down the men-only sign at the White House,” said Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. “Gerry was a force of nature, a powerhouse. She did change the way we women thought about ourselves in American politics.”
Bush also addressed her as "Mrs. Ferraro" throughout their debate, despite her standing as a former member of Congress, which should have called for addressing her as "Congresswoman" or "Representative." Reporters questioned whether, as a woman, she could "push the button" to start a nuclear attack.

But all that came after her acceptance speech, which is why--in retrospect and in the history books--it looms large. That night was all about hope, possibilities and connecting with her party's base. Ferraro did that by talking about herself as part of her family:
Tonight, the daughter of a woman whose highest goal was a future for her children talks to our nation's oldest party about a future for us all. Tonight, the daughter of working Americans tells all Americans that the future is within our reach, if we're willing to reach for it. Tonight, the daughter of an immigrant from Italy has been chosen to run for President in the new land my father came to love. Our faith that we can shape a better future is what the American dream is all about.
Looking back, many would say she played it safe in this speech--and there were scores of critiques about this speech and her debate, saying she was too masculine in her style and too traditional. It's tough being first. Today's listener should keep in mind that when the occasion is historic, the speech doesn't need to overreach. It just needs to fulfill the goal, and let the occasion do the talking.

Later in her career, Ferraro shared her battle with the teleprompter (a new technology in her day) and how it affected this acceptance speech. (You'll note in this partial video of her speech that she refers to written notes more comfortably.)  And more recently, she caused a foment during the 2008 campaign by criticizing Barack Obama and suggesting that Hillary Clinton had been treated unfairly in the campaign, not a "safe" stance at all.  None of that takes away from what made this speech famous: The first time a woman could say these words for real. Here's the video:



(Photo from drewsaunders photostream on Flickr)

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