Ferraro grew up in New York and became a teacher and lawyer. In 1974 she joined the Queens County District Attorney's Office, where she headed the new Special Victims Bureau that dealt with sex crimes, child abuse, and domestic violence. She was elected to Congress in 1978, where she rose rapidly in the party hierarchy while focusing on legislation to bring equity for women in the areas of wages, pensions, and retirement plans. In 1984, former Vice President and Presidential candidate Walter Mondale selected Ferraro to be his running mate in the upcoming election. In doing so she also became the only Italian American to be a major-party national nominee. The positive polling Mondale received when she joined him did not last until November, and they were defeated in an electoral landslide by incumbent President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush.
She ran two campaigns for a seat in the United States Senate in 1992 and 1998, but twice lost the nomination of her party in the primaries. She served as a United States Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1993 until 1996 in the Presidential administration of Bill Clinton. She has also continued her career as a journalist, author, and businesswoman, and served in the 2008 presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Ferraro was born in Newburgh, New York, the daughter of parents Antonetta L. (née Corrieri), a first-generation Italian American seamstress, and Dominick Ferraro, an Italian immigrant and owner of two restaurants. Geraldine had an older brother, and two other older brothers who died in infancy and at the age of three. Geraldine's father then died when she was eight. Geraldine's mother soon invested and lost the remainder of the family's money, and she was forced to move the family to a low income area in the South Bronx while she worked in the garment industry to support them.
Ferraro attended the private Marymount Academy in Tarrytown, New York on a full scholarship. There she was a member of the honor society, active in several clubs and sports, and voted most likely to succeed; she graduated in 1952. Ferraro attended Marymount Manhattan College with a scholarship, sometimes holding two or three jobs at the same time. Ferraro received a Bachelor of Arts in English from there in 1956.
Ferraro began working as an elementary school teacher in public schools in Astoria, Queens, a typical job expected for women to do at the time. Unsatisfied, she decided to attend law school. She earned a Juris Doctor degree with honors from Fordham University School of Law in 1960, going to classes at night while continuing to work as a second-grade teacher during the day. Ferraro was one of only two women in her graduating class of 179. She was admitted to the New York State Bar Association in March 1961.
While raising the children, Ferraro worked part-time as a civil lawyer in her husband's real estate firm for 13 years.
Ferraro's first major political job came in January 1974 when she was appointed Assistant District Attorney for Queens County, New York by her cousin, District Attorney Nicholas Ferraro. At the time, women prosecutors in the city were uncommon. In 1975, she was assigned to the new Special Victims Bureau, which prosecuted cases involving rape, child abuse, spouse abuse, and domestic violence. She was then named head of the unit in 1977, with two other assistant district attorneys assigned to her. In this role, she became a strong advocate for abused children.
In the D.A. office, Ferraro worked long hours, and gained a reputation for being tough but fair. Although her unit was supposed to turn over cases for prosecution, she conducted some trials herself, and juries were persuaded by her summations. Ferraro found the nature of the cases she dealt with debilitating, and difficult to forget once home; she grew frustrated that she was unable to deal with root causes, and talked about running for legislative office.
Despite being a newcomer to the House, Ferraro made a vivid impression upon arrival and quickly began achieving prominence. She became a protégé of House Speaker Tip O'Neil established a rapport with other House Democratic leaders, and rose rapidly in the party hierarchy. She was elected to be the Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, the first woman in that position, in 1980 and again in 1982; this entitled her to a seat on the influential Steering and Policy Committee. In 1983 she was named to the powerful House Budget Committee. She also served on the Public Works and Transportation Committee and the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. Male colleagues viewed her with respect as someone who was tough and ambitious.
Ferraro was active in Democratic presidential politics as well. In 1980 she served as one of the deputy chairs for the Carter-Mondale campaign. Following the election, she served actively on the Hunt Commission that in 1982 rewrote the Democratic delegate selection rules; Ferraro was credited as having been the prime agent behind the creation of superdelegates. She was the Chairwoman of the Platform Committee for the 1984 Democratic National Convention, the first woman to hold that position. There she held multiple hearings around the country and further gained in visibility.
While in Congress, Ferraro focussed much of her legislative attention on equity for women in the areas of wages, pensions, and retirement plans. She was a cosponsor of the 1981 Economic Equity Act. On the House Select Committee on Aging, she concentrated on the problems of elderly women. In 1984, she championed a pension equity law revision that would improve the benefits of people who left work for long periods and then returned, a typical case for women with families. The Reagan administration, at first lukewarm to the measure, decided to sign it to gain the benefits of its popular appeal.
Ferraro also worked on some environmental issues. In 1980, she tried to prevent the federal government from having power to override local laws on hazardous materials transportation, an effort she continued in subsequent years. In August 1984, she led passage of a Superfund renewal bill, and attacked the Reagan administration's handling of environment site cleanups.
Ferraro took a congressional trip to Nicaragua in January 1984, where she spoke to the Contras, and decided that the Reagan Administration's military interventions there and in El Salvador were counterproductive towards reaching U.S. security goals, and that regional negotiations would be better.
In all, Ferraro served three two-year terms, being re-elected in 1980 and 1982, with her vote shares increasing to 58 percent and then 73 percent, respectively. While her pro-choice views conflicted with those of many of her constituents as well as the Catholic Church to which she belonged, her positions on other social and foreign policy issues were in alignment with her district. She favored deployment of the Pershing II missile and the Trident submarine, and an anti-busing amendment to the Constitution.
While in the House, Ferraro's political self-description evolved to "moderate". In 1982, she said her experiences as assistant district attorney had changed some of her views: "... because no matter how concerned I am about spending, I have seen first hand what poverty can do to people's lives and I just can't, in good conscience, not do something about it." For her six years in Congress, Ferraro had an average 78 percent "Liberal Quotient" from Americans for Democratic Action; for the same period, she had an average 8 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.
As the 1984 U.S. presidential election primary season wound down and Walter Mondale became the likely Democratic nominee, the idea of picking a woman as his vice-presidential running mate gained considerable attention. The National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus pushed the notion, as did several top Democratic figures such as Speaker O'Neill. Women mentioned for the role included Ferraro and Mayor of San Francisco Dianne Feinstein, both of whom were on Mondale's five-person short list.
Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro to be his Vice-Presidential candidate on July 12, 1984, and Ferraro stated, "I am absolutely thrilled." The Mondale campaign was wagering that her selection would shake up a race in which he was a decided underdog; in addition to attracting women, they were hoping that she could attract ethnic Democrats in the Northeast U.S., who had abandoned their party for Reagan in 1980. In turn, Mondale was accepting the risk that came with her inexperience. Ferraro's July 19 nomination at the 1984 Democratic National Convention was one of the most emotional moments of that gathering, with female delegates appearing joyous and proud at the historic occasion. In her acceptance speech, Ferraro said, "The daughter of an immigrant from Italy has been chosen to run for vice president in the new land my father came to love." Convention attendees were in tears during her speech, not just for its significance for women but for all those who had emigrated to America.
The choice of Ferraro was viewed as a gamble, and pundits were uncertain whether it would result in a net gain or loss of votes for the Mondale campaign. In the days after the convention, Ferraro proved an effective campaigner, with a brash and confident style that forcefully criticized the Reagan administration and sometimes almost overshadowed Mondale. Mondale had been 16 points behind Reagan in polls before the pick, and after the convention he pulled even for a short time.
But by the last week of July, questions were simmering about Ferraro's finances, those of her husband, and their separately-filed tax returns. (While the Mondale campaign had anticipated some questions, the drawn-out vice-presidential selection process had not fully vetted her on this aspect.) Ferraro said that she would release both their returns within a month, but maintained that she was correct not to have included her husband's financial holdings on her past annual Congressional disclosure statements. Notice of the FEC's past investigation into Ferraro's 1978 campaign funds also came to light. On August 12, she announced that her husband would not in fact be releasing his tax returns, on the grounds that to do so would disadvantage his real estate business and that such a disclosure was voluntary and not part of election law; she then quipped, "You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it's like."
This development dominated television and newspapers; Ferraro was besieged by questions regarding the finances as well as criticism for ethnic stereotyping. As she later wrote, "I had created a monster." Republicans saw her finances as a "genderless" issue that they could attack Ferraro with without creating a backlash. A week later, Ferraro said her husband had changed his mind and would release his tax records, which was done on August 20. The full statements included notice of payment of some $53,000 in back federal taxes that she owed due to what was described as an accountant's error. Ferraro said the statements proved overall that she had nothing to hide and that there had been no financial wrongdoing.
Ferraro's strong performance at the press conference covering the final disclosure effectively put the issue behind her for the remainder of the campaign, but significant damage had been done. No campaign issue during the entire 1984 presidential campaign received more media attention than Ferraro's finances. The exposure would have the effect of diminishing Ferraro's rising stardom, removing whatever momentum the Mondale–Ferraro ticket gained out of the convention, and delaying the formation of a coherent message for the fall campaign. As a Catholic, Ferraro also came under fire from some members of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church for being pro-choice on abortion; that issue would have her on the defensive during the entire campaign. Nevertheless, Ferraro resumed her role as a strong campaigner, taking on the traditional running mate role of attacking the opposition vigorously, but also drawing large crowds witnessing the historic moment and chanting, "Ger-ry! Ger-ry! Mondale and Ferraro rarely touched during their appearances together, to the point that he wouldn't even place his palm on her back when they stood side-by-side; Ferraro later said this was because anything more and "people were afraid that it would look like, 'Oh, my God, they're dating.'
There was one 1984 campaign vice-presidential debate between Congresswoman Ferraro and Vice President George H. W. Bush. It was held on October 11, and the result was proclaimed mostly even by the press and historians; women voters tended to think Ferraro had won, while men, Bush. Ferraro criticized Reagan's actions of refusing to support the Voting Rights Act. Her experience was questioned at the debate and she was asked how her three terms in Congress stacked up with Bush's experience. To one Bush statement she said, "Let me just say first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy." She strongly defended her position on abortion, which earned her applause and a respectful reply from her opponent. In the days leading up to the debate, Second Lady of the United States Barbara Bush had publicly referred to Ferraro as "that four-million-dollar—I can’t say it, but it rhymes with 'rich'"; Barbara Bush soon apologized. Ferraro's sex was a steady presence during the campaign; one study found that 27 percent of newspaper articles written about her contained gendered language.
On November 6, Mondale and Ferraro lost the general election in a landslide. They received only 41 percent of the popular vote compared to Reagan and Bush's 59 percent, and in the Electoral College won only Mondale's home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Ferraro failed to carry her own congressional district, which always tended to vote Republican in presidential races. Ferraro's presence on the ticket had little measurable effect overall. Reagan won 55 percent of women voters, while of the 10 percent of voters who decided based on the vice-presidential candidates, 54 percent went to Mondale–Ferraro, establishing that Ferraro provided a net gain to the Democrats of 0.8 percent. Reagan's personal appeal and campaign themes of prosperity and "It's morning again in America" were too strong; political observers generally agree that no combination of Democrats could have won the election in 1984.
After the election, the House Ethics Committee found that Ferraro had technically violated the Ethics in Government Act by failing to report or reporting incorrectly details of her family's finances, and that she should have reported her husband's holdings on her Congressional disclosure forms. However, the committee concluded that she had acted without "deceptive intent", and since she was leaving Congress anyway, no action against her was taken. Ferraro said, "I consider myself completely vindicated."
Members of Ferraro's family were indeed facing legal issues. In January 1985, her husband John Zaccaro had pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtain bank financing in a real estate transaction and had been sentenced to 150 hours of community service. Then in October 1986, he was indicted on unrelated felony charges regarding an alleged 1981 bribery of Queens Borough President Donald Manes concerning a cable television contract. A full year later, he was acquitted at trial. Meanwhile, in February 1986, the couple's son John had been arrested for possession and sale of cocaine. He was convicted, and in June 1988 sentenced to four months imprisonment, as Ferraro broke down in tears in court relating the stress the episode had placed on her family.
By October 1991, Ferraro was ready to enter politics again, as she was running for the Democratic nomination in the 1992 United States Senate election in New York. Her opponents were State Attorney General Robert Abrams, Rev. Al Sharpton, Congressman Robert J. Mrazek, and New York City Comptroller and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman. Abrams was considered the early front-runner. The D'Amato campaign feared facing Ferraro the most among these, as her Italian ancestry, effective debating and stump speech skills, and her staunch pro-choice views would eat into several of D'Amato's usual bases of support. Ferraro drew renewed attacks during the primary campaign from the media and her opponents over her husband's finances and business relationships. She rebuffed the charges strongly, objecting that a male candidate would not receive nearly as much attention regarding his wife's activities. Ferraro became the front-runner, capitalizing on her star power from 1984 and her use of the campaign attacks against her as an explicitly feminist rallying point for women voters. As the primary date neared, her lead began to dwindle under the charges, and she released additional tax returns from the 1980s to try to defray the attacks; the final debates were nasty, and Holtzman in particular was constantly attacking Ferraro's integrity and finances. On the September 15, 1992 primary, Abrams edged out Ferraro by less than percentage point, winning 37 percent of the vote to 36 percent. Abrams spent much of the remainder of the campaign trying to get Ferraro's endorsement. Ferraro, bitter after the nature of the primary, was eventually coerced by state party leaders into giving it with just three days to go before the general election, which D'Amato won by a very narrow margin.
President Bill Clinton appointed Ferraro as a member of the United States delegation to United Nations Commission on Human Rights in January 1993. Then in October 1993, Clinton promoted her to be head of the delegation, with the rank of United States Ambassador, saying that Ferraro had been "a highly effective voice for the human rights of women around the world. Ferraro held this position into 1996.
In February 1996, Ferraro joined the high-visibility CNN political talk show Crossfire, as the co-host representing the "from the left" vantage. Her New York accent still intact, she fit in well with the program's format, sparring effectively with "from the right" co-host Pat Buchanan. The show stayed strong in ratings for CNN, and the job was lucrative for her. She said she welcomed how the role "keeps me visible [and] it keeps me extremely well informed on the issues."
At the start of 1998, Ferraro left Crossfire and ran for the Democratic nomination again, in the 1998 United States Senate election in New York. Her opponents were Congressman Charles Schumer and New York City Public Advocate Mark J. Green. She had done no fundraising, out of fear of conflict with her Crossfire job, but was nonetheless immediately perceived as the front-runner; indeed, December and January polls had her 25 percentage points ahead of Green in the race and even further ahead of Schumer. Unlike the previous campaigns, her family finances never became an issue. However, she lost ground during the summer, with Schumer catching her in the polls by early August and then soon passing her. Schumer, a tireless fundraiser, outspent her by a five-to-one margin, and Ferraro failed to establish a political image current with the times. In the September 15, 1998 primary, she was beaten soundly by Schumer with a 51 percent to 26 percent margin. Unlike 1992, the contest was not divisive, and Ferraro and third-place finisher Green endorsed Schumer at a unity breakfast the following day. Schumer would go on to decisively unseat D'Amato in the general election.
The 1998 primary defeat brought an end to Ferraro's political career. The New York Times wrote at the time: "If Ms. Ferraro's rise was meteoric, her political career's denouement was protracted, often agonizing and, at first glance, baffling." She still retained admirers, though. Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, noted that female New York political figures in the past had been reluctant to enter the states's notoriously fierce primary races, and said: "This woman has probably been more of an opinion maker than most people sitting for six terms straight in the House of Representatives or Senate. Her attempts, and even her losses, have accomplished far beyond what others have accomplished by winning."
In 1998, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer where plasma cells secrete abnormal antibodies known as Bence-Jones proteins, and has become an avid supporter of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and has beaten the disease's Stage 1 survival mean of 62 months by a factor of 2.
She and her husband lived for many years in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens and moved to Manhattan in 2004.
In a March 7, 2008, article in the Torrance, California newspaper, The Daily Breeze, Ferraro said regarding Clinton's nomination rival that "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept". Ferraro had made a similar comment in 1984 about Jesse Jackson. Ferraro justified her statements by referring to her own run for vice president saying that she "was talking about historic candidacies and what I started off by saying (was that) if you go back to 1984 and look at my historic candidacy, which I had just talked about all these things, in 1984 if my name was Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would have never been chosen as a vice-presidential candidate. It had nothing to do with my qualification.
Her comments drew criticism and charges of racism from many supporters of Barack Obama. Although Senator Clinton publicly expressed disagreement with Ferraro's remarks, the Clinton campaign never asked for her resignation. On March 11, again speaking to the Breeze, Ferraro responded to the attacks on her by saying: "I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that? She resigned from Clinton's finance committee the next day, saying that she didn't want the Obama camp to use her comments to hurt Clinton's campaign.
After leaving the Clinton campaign, Ferraro continued to criticize Obama via her position as a Fox News contributor. Ferraro stated in May 2008 that she thought Obama himself was sexist and that she might not vote for him in the general election.
In August 2008, Ferraro gave an enthusiastic response to the announcement of Sarah Palin as the Republican nominee for Vice President saying: "But without Hillary being the nominee it's really quite equally as important because people are looking for a smart campaign and I think this might do it..
Her second book, a collection of her speeches, was titled Changing History: Women, Power and Politics and was published in 1993.
Framing a Life: A Family Memoir, her 1998 book, is the life story of her immigrant mother.
New York's 9th congressional district, 1978
New York's 9th congressional district, 1980
Battista also ran on Conservative and Right to Life tickets
New York's 9th congressional district, 1982
1984 Democratic National Convention (Vice-Presidential tally)
Democratic primary for the United States Senate, 1992
Democratic primary for the United States Senate, 1998