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Remembering Gerry and the Courage of Her Convictions

| March 31, 2011

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The 1984 Walter Mondale/Geraldine Ferraro ticket

Author and activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin here gives us a close friend's portrait of Geraldine Ferraro.

The bishop of New York showed up at the wake on Tuesday and kneeled before Geraldine Ferraro’s coffin.  Gerry would have been pleased.  The church owed her one for all the years when its establishment excoriated her for supporting abortion rights. Whether as a candidate, congresswoman, Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, or in the decades since, whenever she spoke in public, Gerry never knew if she might have to face off against some priest threatening her with eternal damnation, hostile Catholics demanding her excommunication, or jeering catcalls of  “Baby Killer!”

Such vicious personal attacks would unnerve anyone.  For Gerry, a devout Catholic until the day she died, the vilification cut close to the bone. She was a church-going, family-loving, Italian-American wife and mother whose conscience would not allow her to choose abortion for herself, but whose sense of decency led her to defend other women’s right to do so in the privacy of their conscience.  Gerry’s empathy was rooted in her personal relationship with Jesus Christ and his relationship to human suffering.  Only after perceiving the depth of her devotion to the church did I fully appreciate how brave was her pro-choice advocacy. While other politicians and public feminists could blithely speechify on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, each time Gerry spoke out it was an act of courage, a spiritual risk-taking, a hard-won triumph of her secular sense of fairness over her deeply rooted religious faith.

Courage is a hackneyed term but no other word adequately describes the attitude with which she lived her life.  From the early 1970s on, I had occasion to witness it close-up after our families got to know each other in the tiny summer community of Saltaire, Fire Island, a narrow barrier beach wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great South Bay about 50 miles from Manhattan.  Cars are banned in season on Fire Island; you arrive by passenger ferry and once there, travel on foot or by bike, and transport your luggage, children, and groceries by wagon. Saltaire boasts one food market, one playground, one doctor-on-duty, one club, but two churches.  The Zaccaros—Gerry, her husband John, and their three children—were regulars at Our Lady Star of the Sea, a white clapboard structure with Gothic windows, imposing by Fire Island standards, that rises out of the sand like a mirage and has stood firm against several hurricanes.

The church was a kind of metaphor for Gerry who was solid and strong, a lady in the way Marymount Manhattan girls like her were taught to be, and soon to become the star of our seaside community. But she started as a public school teacher, while attending Fordham Law School at night, where she was one of only two women in her 1960 graduating class.  She raised her three children while doing some legal work for her husband’s real estate firm.  Her career as we know it didn’t really take off until 1974 when she was appointed an assistant district attorney in Queens, a big deal back when few women were prosecutors.

Always a strong proponent of women’s legal, economic, and political equality, Gerry was uncomfortable with movement rhetoric of the day, words like “women’s lib,” “male supremacy,” or “patriarchy.”   She wasn’t into feminist theory or analysis; she was interested in facts and law.  I remember how shocked she was when she discovered that she was being paid less than her male colleagues, a discrepancy her superior defended on the grounds that she had a husband to support her.

In 1975, she was assigned to the Special Victims Bureau where she prosecuted cases of rape, domestic violence, and child abuse (she was made head of the unit two years later), and soon became a passionate advocate for women, children, and poor people. Exposure to these victims seemed to add to her gut-level understanding of gender inequities a more global perspective on women’s suffering.   Gerry was looking at life through the prism of the powerless.

During her first campaign for the United States Congress, she often talked about her humble beginnings in the South Bronx and how her values were shaped by her widowed mother, a hard-working seamstress.  But Gerry’s courage was all her own as she led on issues of child abuse and domestic violence, and withstood the personal ordeals yet to come.

In 1984, while she was running for vice president and her husband’s business dealings and the couple’s tax returns became a campaign issue, Gerry submitted to a grueling media interrogation with authority, assurance, and dignity. A few years later, their son’s youthful drug arrest again opened their private life to harsh public scrutiny.  Where other beleaguered families might have lashed out at one another behind the scenes, Gerry and John presented a united front and remained fiercely loyal, they never played the blame game.

For the past 13 years, an even deeper level of courage rose to the fore as she battled multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow, as if she were fighting it one cell at a time.  While undergoing countless drug treatments, steroid shots, a stem cell transplant, thalidomide therapy, repeated hospitalizations and surgical procedures, she continued, as best as she could, to work at her law firm, appear at fundraising events to help women candidates get elected, and make herself presentable for her stints on Fox News.  (“I don’t mind being their token liberal,” she’d say. “Someone’s got to do it.”)

Until a few months ago, nothing made her more animated than talking politics with her friends. She was pissed when Hillary lost the 2008 nomination.  She was feistily adamant about the urgent need for affordable health care and reasonably priced drugs for every American, not just people like herself who could pay for the best.  Sexism in the media made her furious.  Glen Beck drove her nuts.

In the last couple of years, she yo-yoed through good days and bad days, the bad days marked by excruciating back pain, cracked ribs, pinched nerves, and a swollen face. It was a shock to see her height shrink to under five feet and her weight plummet, to hear her quick, vigorous Queens accent turn sluggish with medication, to notice the black and blue marks on her arms and legs, or watch her make her way across the room on a walker, then in a wheel chair. Through it all, she actively pursued the latest cutting-edge treatment, the next experimental drug, anything that might keep her alive a few more months, maybe even years.   She never gave up.  Three days after she died, her husband told me that the doctors said 85 percent of her body was made up of cancer cells.

Her sheer physical fortitude, good humor, worldly engagement, and unbending will to survive were awe-inspiring to me and the other three friends who, with Gerry, had started a women’s group a few years ago to discuss our work, families, the state of the world, and the strange terrain of life over 60.  Our little cabal, which, in a burst of delayed adolescence, dubbed ourselves The Fab Five, met twice a year for weekend retreats, always with a full agenda, and between meetings, kept the conversation going by email. When Gerry became too sick to travel, she attended the retreats by speaker-phone.

As honest and self-disclosing as all of us were in those meetings, we never directly confronted the elephant in the room, the fact that one of us was dying.  But this January, Gerry and I finally had that conversation. She told me she had prepared her family for life without her, that she could finally relax because she’d taught John to make his own meals and told her kids which of her belongings she wanted each of them to have, and what sort of funeral and gravestone they should arrange for.

“Are you afraid of death?” I asked.

She laughed.  “Letty, you’re Jewish. You don’t understand that I really believe I’m going to heaven. I’m going to be with my mom and Jesus. What have I got to be afraid of?

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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