26 March 2011

What I Learned From Geraldine Ferraro

Is this turning into a blog about famous recently-departed women?

Today Geraldine Ferraro died.  If you're reading this, you probably know that she was the first woman (and first Italian-American) to be nominated as a major political party's Vice-Presidential candidate.  I remember it well:  It was 1984, and in a sadly ironic way, Presidential nominee Walter Mondale had nothing to lose by choosing her as his running mate. After all, incumbent Ronald Reagan was one of the most popular Presidents of all time (It pains me to write that!) due to the economy-- or, rather, people's perception of it--and the fact that Iran-Contra and other scandals had not yet come to light.  

A few people praised Mondale's choice.  But there was far more criticism, which ranged from ignorant to outright vicious.  Much of it included the old (but, in some quarters, still-persistent) stereotypes about women and our un-fitness for public office or much else besides domesticity and child-bearing.  Some saw her as shrill; given the attacks on her, I thought she was a model of restraint and dignity.

The interesting thing about her is that not many people can point to any significant legislations or policy that bore her imprimatur.   Yes, she was an Assistant District Attorney in Queens at a time when there were almost no other women in such offices, and she headed the office's Special Victims Bureau at a time (the mid-1970's) when rape and other crimes against women were starting to get the attention they needed and victims of those crimes were starting to get the compassion they deserved rather than the blame they unfairly received.  And, later, she was an effective advocate for women who were raped during the ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia.  As commendable as those efforts were, they were hardly ground-breaking.

What she will always be known for is for having been a "first."  Of course, the importance of that cannot be underestimated:  even Sarah Palin has acknowledged a debt to Ferraro.  And now I will.  You see, if one woman is allowed to go where her talents and ambitions take her, it's possible for other women to do the same. And in doing so, we have more possibility of, and more possibilities for, being ourselves and not having to fit pre-conceived notions and, therefore, proscribed roles.

That is one reason why I have been able to make my gender transition.  When the definitions of what a woman is, and can be are expanded, it makes it easier for a woman to realize the person she is--even if she happens to be in a male body.  I did not have to become another Marilyn Monroe (as if I ever could!) or June Cleaver; when Christine Jorgensen made her transition, those seemed to be the only options for women.  And so she had to fit into one after she had her surgery, and the other as she lived, got married and continued with her life as Christine.  Today I can choose to be a different sort of woman. In fact, I have no choice but to be. And from Geraldine Ferraro I learned about some of my possibilities for doing that.