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Gerry Ferraro's Other Legacy: How a Good Catholic Girl From Queens Took On Her Church

For the women of America, Geraldine Ferraro was a trailblazer in American politics. But for Catholic women, she was a champion who stood up to the bishops for our sake.

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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.

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania where her major interest is the intersection of religion, reproduction and women's rights. She has an additional interest in US organ transplant policy. She served for 25 years as president of Catholics for a Free Choice .