Gerry Ferraro's Other Legacy: How a Good Catholic Girl From Queens Took On Her Church
Geraldine Ferraro may have grown up in the mythic Queens of Norman Lear's Archie Bunker, but she was never an Archie Bunker Catholic. She was, for Catholic women of the 1980s, the first public figure whose early life and education mirrored ours -- and, like us, she had come out of working-class Catholic schools and an undergraduate degree from Marymount Manhattan College under the direction of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, the women's order considered by most to be the intellectual equal of the Jesuits'. The sisters who taught her were better educated than many of the priests was hold forth on theology in the parish. (Her law degree from the Jesuit Fordham University made her better educated than many of that era's bishops.)
Ferraro's nomination in 1984 as the Democratic Party vice presidential candidate was taken as a slap in the face to the Catholic bishops, prompting the opening salvo in what has become a concerted effort by church officials to discredit and bully every pro-choice Catholic aspires to public office. Along with Mario Cuomo, she stood her ground. Mario had the eloquence of an Italian Renaissance prince, while Gerry exuded the tenacity and down-to-earth commitment to women exhibited by the founders of those religious orders of women who went out to start schools -- Mother Elizabeth Seton and St. Frances Cabrini.
Gerry was especially loved by the progressive feminist nuns of the '70s and '80s who saw her as "one of us" -- especially after she was viciously attacked for her pro-choice views during the 1984 presidential campaign.
I first met Ferraro in 1982, the year I became president of Catholics for a Free Choice and I was, in some way, the immediate cause of her problems. I asked her to sponsor a congressional briefing for Catholic members of Congress who had pro-choice or mixed voting records on reproductive rights. The briefing would offer theological and sociological insights on the issue.
Ferraro agreed to my request. She also sent out a letter of invitation which stated that "the Catholic position on abortion is not monolithic and that there can be a range of personal and political responses to the issue." Two years later, Cardinal John O'Connor used that statement as the basis of an election attack on Ferraro and the Democratic Party, alleging that she had "said some things about abortion relative to Catholic teaching which are not true."
Of course, Ferraro had said exactly what was true -- Catholics held many different positions on abortion both morally and politically. Ferraro herself accepted the church's ostensible position that the fetus was person (let us not here rehash the fact that the church actually does not teach that it is a person) but believed we had to respect the views of those of other faiths. Perhaps most importantly, she believed that making abortion illegal would not prevent it from happening,
What was galling to O'Connor and a few other bishops was that the Democratic Party could think it could nominate a woman, a Catholic, who disagreed with the church on abortion with impunity.
Gerry's nomination was the sign that the old working-class Irish bond between the party and the church was dying. Within the church itself, Ferraro's candidacy exposed divisions. Even Gerry's own bishop -- Francis Mugavero of Brooklyn and Queens -- disagreed with O'Connor and welcomed Gerry to church and Communion each Sunday.
The attacks on Ferraro outraged progressive Catholics. Many had never spoken out on abortion, but now felt they could no longer remain silent. In a group effort, Marquette University theology professor Dan Maguire, his then-wife Marjorie and I drafted "A Catholic Statement on Abortion" which repeated Ferraro's claim that there was more than one "legitimate Catholic opinion on abortion," and called on church officials to cease punishing and attacking Catholics who disagreed with the official position. In early October -- just weeks before the election -- Catholics for a Free Choice published the statement as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times with the signatures of leading theologians, as well as 24 religious sisters, two brothers and two priests.
Some of the sisters and Catholic feminists had been appearing at Ferraro campaign stops bearing signs that read "Catholics for Ferraro" and "Catholic Mother for Ferraro." Gerry told me how much this support meant to her. Campaign stops were also the targets of anti-abortion protests that featured ugly signs condemning Ferraro to Hell -- and worse.
Observing Gerry during this period was an incredible opportunity for professional women -- especially Catholic women, who were not accustomed to seeing themselves among those who held positions of national power and never felt that church leaders had to take them seriously.
Geraldine Ferraro was so Catholic, exhibiting all the skills Catholic women have needed to make it in the male world of that time. She knew how to be friends with the boys who had power -- Tip O'Neill, then speaker of the House, adored her. She used humor to defuse tense situations. And she did not take herself overly seriously.
One day, Dan Maguire and I went to her office to get some photos taken with her. She took us into a large closet to show us where she kept a photo of herself with Pope John Paul II. She looked awful in that picture. Now, just try to find a bad picture of Geraldine Ferraro. There aren't many, because Gerry had that kind of face that cameras love. She knew this about herself; standing with us before the open closet door, she laughed and noted that the Vatican photographers must have worked really hard to find that one photo. For all the shutter-clicks that marked the occasion of her papal meeting, this was the best the Vatican could come up with. It was the only photo they sent her.
The role that Ferraro played in the late-20th century struggle for women's rights in the church was not accidental and while official church historians will surely ignore it and secular feminists may not get the significance, historians of American Catholic feminism will surely analyze and honor her role. For Catholic feminists the Gerry days hold fond and important memories of the woman who stood her ground with grace and humor. She gave not one inch to satisfy church leaders bent on obedience. She was not just the first Catholic woman to run for Vice President on a major party ticket. She was the woman who ended the control Catholic bishops had on the Democratic Party. It's up to us to ensure that her story is told in all its fullness for generations to come.
On a personal note, I was touched when my own mother died to get a note from Gerry. She said that not a day passed that she did not remember her father, who had died when Gerry was only eight years old. Her faithfulness to family -- mother, husband, daughters and son were renowned. Gerry did what was right, whether it furthered her career or not. I am sure her daughters and son will not pass a day without Gerry on their mind. What wonderful memories they must have.