The Contenders: Two Women Who Paved the Way for Hillary Clinton

The Contenders: Two Women Who Paved the Way for Hillary Clinton
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Why you should care

Because the only two U.S. women ever nominated at a major party convention both stole the show. 

Learn more about Geraldine Ferraro’s and Sarah Palin’s historic candidacies by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

The first draft of the speech was written for a yet-unnamed male running mate for GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. It was not an unreasonable assumption — most of the finalists for the job, not to mention every major-party vice presidential pick save one in the entire history of the U.S. republic, were men. Three days before the 2008 Republican National Convention, however, McCain surprised the world by naming Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his VP pick, and speechwriter Matthew Scully had to scramble to tailor the speech to the political unknown who was making her big stage debut in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Scully pulled it off, and Palin delivered, dazzling television viewers across the country and electrifying the Republican faithful, who had been hungering for a high-wattage political celebrity to counter the soaring oratory of Barack Obama. Less impressive media moments would soon follow for Palin, but that speech, like the one given 24 years before by the only other woman to appear on a major-party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, was unquestionably one of the finest moments in modern convention history.

Like McCain, former Vice President Walter Mondale was in need of a game-changing running mate in 1984. After a protracted nomination battle against Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, the bruised Democratic nominee entered the summer trailing President Ronald Reagan by a whopping 19 points in one poll. Into the void, and the spotlight, stepped Ferraro, a former elementary school teacher who had attended law school at night and raised her children before becoming a tough prosecutor and formidable congresswoman from Queens.

Ferraro’s selection promptly transformed Mondale’s rather prosaic run into a historic venture. And the Democratic convention that July in San Francisco was electric in anticipation of Ferraro’s appearance: Women cried and danced in the aisle, and activist Bella Abzug handed out cigars reading “It’s a girl!” as the crowd chanted “Ger-ry, Ger-ry.”

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A floor demonstration supporting Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro erupts during the 1984 San Francisco, California, Democratic National Convention at the George Moscone Center.

Source George Rose/Getty

“Ladies and gentlemen of the convention,” the petite 49-year-old confidently announced from the podium to tumultuous applause, “my name is Geraldine Ferraro.” Like all good VP nominee speeches, Ferraro’s cheered her running mate and jeered their opponents, hammering Reagan for the mountain of debt his policies were running up. But her address was also about much more than a single election. “By choosing a woman to run for our nation’s second-highest office, you send a powerful signal to all Americans,” she proclaimed. “There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement.”

Notwithstanding the glass ceiling it shattered, the Mondale-Ferraro ticket’s own achievement was rather limited, winning just one state and 13 electoral votes. Reagan not only won the women’s vote but also Ferraro’s home state of New York. Still, Ferraro’s nomination — and her electrifying speech — would have a lasting impact on numerous women seeking public office in the intervening decades.

When one of those women, Palin, took the stage a quarter century later in the only state Mondale won, no one, including Palin’s own staff, who had been feverishly prepping her for days, knew quite what to expect. Palin’s bold nomination, however, had done at least one thing already: kill any momentum Obama had after the Democratic convention in Denver. “I was in Denver and I watched every light, camera and all the action — ffffwah — pack up and head to Wasilla, Alaska,” Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor at Wake Forest University tells OZY in The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a documentary series that airs every Tuesday this fall at 8 p.m. EST on PBS. “I was, like, ‘Where did everybody go?’ ”

With questions already surrounding her qualifications and experience, Palin spent the first part of her 40-minute speech sharing her life story, including the famous zinger where she quipped that her being the mayor of Wasilla was “sort of like [being] a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.” Palin appeared to be a natural: She was charming and persuasive and she hit all of Scully’s themes with gusto, including depicting Obama as an out-of-touch Democratic elitist “who lavishes praise on working people when they’re listening and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.”

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Republican U.S presidential nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stands with Republican U.S vice-presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Source Justin Sullivan/Getty

By the time Palin was finished, the convention crowd was in ecstasy, and political pundits boiled over with effusive praise. Perhaps the person most overwhelmed by the performance was McCain himself, who unexpectedly joined Palin onstage afterward, bellowing to the crowd: “Don’t you think we made the right choice for the next vice president of the United States?”

As it turned out, no. But that shouldn’t detract from what will remain one of the most remarkable moments in convention history. And should Hillary Clinton shatter a new glass ceiling in November, she will owe a great deal to the historic candidacies of Ferraro and Palin that helped pave the way.

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