How Geraldine Ferraro Conquered Career Setbacks

The political trailblazer faced challenges familiar to millions of women, and surmounted most of them.

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Geraldine Ferraro, who died at 75 on March 26 from blood cancer she battled for more than a decade, is best known for her historic 1984 bid as the first female vice-presidential candidate. But her life and career also reflected the everyday challenges women have faced over the last several decades as they've become an economic, political, and social force in America. I interviewed Ferraro in 2009 and asked about her career breakthroughs and setbacks. Here are some of her remarks:

I was eight years old when my father died suddenly. My father was not a peasant. He came here [from Italy] first-class. When he was alive, I could have anything I wanted. At 44, he had a heart attack. I missed him something awful. I was the youngest of four. One of my parents' kids died at six days. Another died in a car crash at three years. I was named after him.

Had my father lived, I probably would have gone to finishing school, married somebody from West Point, and had that kind of life. Am I glad my father died? No. But if not for the experience of watching my mother, how she focused on education and got smacked down so many times, I would not be the person I am.

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She worked a full-time job as a crochet beader. It was tough. When my mother was in the 8th grade, the principal came to my house to speak to my grandparents. They were both illiterate. They had the attitude that instead of taking welfare, you sent your kids to work. The principal told them, "She's so smart. Let her go to school." They said, "Forget that." And my mother went to work instead of going to high school. My mother always resented that she went without a high-school education.

I didn't know how much until 1989. She had emphysema and was pretty sick. We took her to the hospital one day, we were waiting to see a doctor, and she was sitting on a gurney in the hallway. A nurse comes up and says, "I need to ask you a few questions about her." Name, Medicare number, stuff like that. I didn't know all the answers so I told the nurse, "Look, her mind is just fine. Her body's falling apart but her mind is fine, so let's go ask her directly." We did. The nurse asks a bunch of questions, then gets to this one: "Do you have a high-school education?" My mother had her hands folded in her lap. She said, "No, but I graduated 8th grade." Then she looks down at her hands and says, "Big deal, huh?" I zoomed over and put my arms around her. I said, "You better believe it's a big deal. Do you know anybody who went to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale who can say their daughter was the first woman to run for vice president of the United States?"

My mother always told me, when you run into a problem or a loss, learn from it and move on. That's always been my philosophy. I think part of her drive came from wanting to feel her kids would never suffer.

Eleanor Roosevelt was one of my life heroes. My mother was, too. I watched how she took a really crappy hand and made sure her kids got the best of everything. When I was 16 and I graduated from high school, I went with her to visit her mother, my grandmother. My uncle Tom was there. He said, "Why are you considering college for Geraldine? She's pretty. She'll find a good husband." And my Mom said, "You're right, Tom. But you know, if you educate a boy, you educate him alone. Educate a girl, and you educate a family." I feel I've been successful because of my mother's advice.

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After I became a lawyer, I was a young woman in the District Attorney's office, in the special victims' bureau in Albany. In 1977, I went to the D.A. and said, "Why am I getting paid less than the other guys in the office?" And he said, "Gerry, because you have a husband." And I said, "Well, they have wives."

At the time, I was a special prosecutor. I was tired. I was handling child abuse cases and things like that. I started looking for other jobs. I couldn't get a job with more money. So I looked for other avenues. I wanted to start making a difference on things I cared about. When I ran for Congress [in 1978], I spoke to everybody on the inside, in Albany, on the [New York] city council, to see what's available. Albany was not for me. When I ran into a stop sign, I looked for an alternate way around.

When I got into Congress at the age of 42, I got on the aging commission. Aging was not a huge issue like it is now. But I always felt that the way to pass on lessons is to learn a lot about your grandparents.

When I ran for the Senate in '92, I was 18 points ahead. There was a very negative ad against me implying I was involved in organized crime because of my Italian heritage. It was appalling. That was the most devastating loss I ever felt because it was so unfair. I was targeted because I'm an Italian-American. It denied me the opportunity to get into the Senate and do something I really cared about. My son was getting married at the time and we had to sit down with our new in-laws and tell them, none of this is true. Had it come from Republicans, I might not have minded as much, but it came in the primary, from a fellow Democrat. This is not what you expect. Would this have happened if I were gay or Jewish? It's been a struggle to be a good American.

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I looked at my situation after I lost and said, "I'm now in a position where I'm a voice." You can work internally. You don't have to be the Comeback Kid. When I was appointed to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights [in 1993] I said, "I'll take it." It was only six weeks a year. We worked on resolutions that weren't binding, but they brought attention to the issues.

In '98 I ran again [for the Senate], and if I had known then what I know now, I wouldn't have gotten into the race. I was at CNN at the time, and I did what politicians do: Look at the polls. Schumer ran, and he's good at raising money, and I couldn't raise the money. I was sick but I didn't know it. It was very difficult. Chuck Schumer is really spectacular at raising money. We're friends, but he was unknown at the time. He got on TV very early. I was 62 years old and feeling run-down and thinking maybe I'm too old. Maybe I can't do it. I spent $1 million on TV, Chuck spent $10 million. I ended up with debt at the end. I would not have done that had I known.

That loss was not such a big deal. It didn't work. Then it was time to move on. I could have wrung my hands about it, but I got organized and asked myself, "How do I help myself now? How do I move on?"

I'm in a wheelchair now because I'm building my bones back up. When I told my kids about the cancer, they went in 50 different directions. My daughter used to go every day to the Today Show and try to get them to do something on this kind of cancer. They'd say, "Do you have somebody we can show as an example?" I didn't go public with it at first, and she'd say, "Maybe, I might have somebody."

I did the hearing before the Senate on blood cancer [in 2001]. I called [Sen. Arlen] Specter to let him know I'd testify if he held the hearing. But I also told him that if there are no hearings, I'll keep it quiet. There were hearings and I did testify. We got $120 million for research. What I've done is channel my disappointment, and raise money for research.

Sixteen Ground Zero workers have been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Three years ago, I met a young person who had been diagnosed with it. He was 38 with two kids. I told him, "It's no longer a death sentence." He had a virulent form. I'm lucky I have a form of the disease I can deal with.

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I see fraud and abuse in the healthcare system every day. I go into the hospital and right away they want to give me anti-nausea medicine just because I'm getting chemo. I say, "Hold on, did my doctor order that?" And they say, "No, we just give it to everybody." I say, "Well, I don't get nausea. Take it away." I went to a hospital in Florida for my chemo once, and I asked how much the treatment was. It was $9,000. I flew home the next day to get the treatment in New York because here it's only $4,000.

You have to factor in the risks you face at various stages in your life. At the age of 74, there's no need for me to take on any more risk. No more political office. If I were 44, maybe. But I prioritize things differently now.

Twitter: @rickjnewman