By Ellen Goodman
We became friends long after we had known each other as candidate and journalist, long after the grit that Geraldine Ferraro showed facing down press and politicians had been transformed into the grit she showed facing multiple myeloma.
I met Gerry in 1984 when we were being teased by rumors that Fritz Mondale might actually pick a woman for his running mate. Maybe even this congresswoman from Queens. I watched weeks later when he introduced her to America and I heard her say, “Vice president, it has such a nice ring to it.”
On a remarkable night at the Democratic National Convention I was one of the female journalists who cornered the market on floor passes to be present and accountable when the first woman in history was voted onto a national ticket. Around me were women in tears, women passing out cigars that read “It’s a Girl!,” women who had simply never expected to live to see that day. An unprofessional wave of goose bumps went up my writing arm.
It’s hard sometimes to remember what it was like back then when Gerry broke the barrier. Time has made it hard. Progress has made it hard. Sarah Palin has made it hard. That campaign, with its ups and downs, with its family traumas and personal attacks, was rough even for the woman who once ran for Congress on the slogan “Finally, a Tough Democrat.”
But here at last was a politician who talked about abortion and said, “If I were pregnant.” Here was a politician who talked about women’s rights as “our rights.” Here was a politician showing little girls what, yes, they too could do. As she said on a disappointing election night, “It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been worth it for all of us.”
Years later, we became part of a small group of women who met and talked about our next steps, about politics and children, clothes and the next generation. Gerry would sometimes say that these days when she made a phone call and left her name, women over 45 let out a gasp and women under 40 said, “How do you spell that?”
How I hope our grandchildren understand what it was like for Gerry. And what she did for them.
Gerry was savvy, street-smart, opinionated, just one wisecrack short of a wiseguy. She was fiercely loyal to her beliefs and her party, to her friends and most of all to her family. She was loyal as well to her faith. If her church refused to believe that anyone could be a pro-choice Catholic, Gerry begged to differ. Although beg is not quite the word.
She told us a story with relish about the day her priest ended Mass by offering a blessing to everyone from “natural conception to natural death.” An outraged Ferraro stormed after him, demanding to know why he refused to bless her two grandchildren created by IVF. She delighted in reporting of his terrified retreat. Mama Grizzlies are not found just in Alaska.
Over the past year, our meetings became phone calls and then emails. The emails were frank, though not self-pitying. Each trip to the hospital left her a little weaker but undiminished, as engaged as ever.
I have never liked the way obituaries say someone “died after a long battle with cancer.” But it is true in Gerry’s case. She was a fighter. It was not in her nature to give up even when that meant painful procedures, one after another. Our friend Pat Schroeder says, “She made the unsinkable Molly Brown look like a wimp.”
One afternoon we were all talking about spiritual life and afterlife. At one point, Gerry insisted that when she died, she would be reunited with her mother. “I don’t know how, but I believe it!” Even the skeptics among us hope she is right.
“American history is about doors being opened,” she liked to say. The truth is that it’s about the people who push those doors open. My friend who died on Saturday was one of those people. “Not bad,” as she would put it, “for a housewife from Queens, huh?” Not bad at all, Gerry.
Ellen Goodman wrote a syndicated column for The Washington Post Writers Group until Jan. 1, 2010. Her email address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group