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Ferraro was a trailblazer for women

By Terry O'Neill, Special to CNN
  • Terry O'Neill: Ferraro came to Congress in 1979 from, basically, Archie Bunker's neighborhood
  • She says she led in shepherding economic justice legislation affecting women, families
  • She says Ferraro's male colleagues called her "ambitious;" she liked that
  • O'Neill: When tapped to run for VP, she changed public perception of face of leadership

Editor's note: Terry O'Neill is the president of the National Organization for Women.

(CNN) -- It was poignant to learn today of Geraldine Ferraro's passing just as the National Organization for Women Political Action Committee was meeting to discuss the upcoming 2012 election cycle.

Sitting around the table, we took time out to share memories of Gerry -- what she meant to us as she blazed a trail for women in electoral politics and how she will continue to inspire us. We have great challenges ahead, and I will think of Ferraro often as we forge ahead.

In 1979, a young attorney from Queens came to Congress determined to bring a new day and a new face to an institution long dominated by older gentlemen protecting the status quo.

The new representative of the very neighborhood personified by Archie Bunker in "All in the Family" had won her race in part on her promise to bring reform to the ZIP code boundary lines in her home district, successfully lobbying for them to be changed to create a separate Queens zip code for the neighborhoods of Glendale and Ridgewood.

Thirty-one years later, months before her death, the nation honored Ferraro on Women's Equality Day with a post office in her name in her beloved Queens.

Remembering Geraldine Ferraro
2008: Ferraro stands by Obama comments
1984: Geraldine Ferraro announces VP bid

But Ferraro ran for Congress not just to equalize zip codes, but to make history. From 1979 to 1984, she led the way in introducing and passing economic justice legislation affecting women and families. Fair pay, fair pensions, fair workplaces were at the top of her "to do" list.

Ironically, Ferraro told a group of women's rights activists soon after her arrival in D.C. that she hadn't planned to come to Congress and work almost solely on women's rights, but when she looked around the 435-member chamber and found just a handful of feminist women and men, she knew she had her work set out for her. In her six short years in Congress, Ferraro worked not only for the families back in Queens but for girls and women nationwide, as well.

The determined and intense Ferraro enjoyed the support and admiration of women's rights groups. They worked by her side during the first Reagan administration, attempting to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which would have guaranteed women's equality under the Constitution); the Retirement Equity Act (giving women equal access to pensions and retirement savings); and the Economic Equity Act, which would result in the historic "health insurance continuation act" now known as COBRA -- the visionary provision that began as a measure to allow widows and divorcees to keep their health insurance at their ex- spouses' group rates.

Her male colleagues called her tough and ambitious, and she took those words as compliments. Her zest and political smarts caught the attention of her party and the 1984 Democratic nominee for president, and she was asked to run with Walter Mondale as his vice presidential nominee.

As Ferraro walked on stage to accept the nomination, public perception of the face of leadership shifted forever. Women came out in droves to volunteer in the Mondale-Ferraro campaign -- and that experience paved the way for women's gains in 1992, the "year of the woman" that hugely boosted the number of women in Congress.

Gains for women, in turn, laid the foundation for Hillary Clinton's supporters putting 18 million cracks in what she called the "highest, hardest glass ceiling." I look at the women in elected office today and salute the spirit of Geraldine Ferraro.

I hope we will do her proud in 2012 and throughout decades of progress yet to come.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Terry O'Neill.

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