How Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin set the stage for Kamala Harris

Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Kamala Harris

Thomas Balcerski teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of "Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King" (Oxford University Press). He tweets @tbalcerski. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)After the chaos of last Tuesday's presidential debate, the VP showdown this week will be a closely watched event. Will Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris restore some semblance of the decorum we've seen in previous years?

Thomas Balcerski
In the history of televised vice presidential debates, two stand out for the enormous audience they drew: the 1984 contest between George H.W. Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, and the 2008 contest between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. The Bush-Ferraro meeting was the most highly watched event in VP debate history, until it was surpassed by the Palin-Biden matchup.
Besides the possibility that the Pence-Harris debate will draw huge ratings, too, the faceoff will also feature a dynamic similar to its 1984 and 2008 predecessors: a female candidate squaring off against a male counterpart. Harris faces a challenge that many other women in politics have confronted: the need to be tough on the issues while still being likable enough to appeal to voters -- an expectation that few male politicians ever face.
    For Harris to win the debate on Wednesday, she will likely need to triangulate herself between the toughness of a Ferraro and the likability of a Palin.
    Will this week's debate prove the third time's a charm for a woman running for vice president? Let's look back at these two VP contests for a preview of what may be to come:

    1984: Geraldine Ferraro vs George H.W. Bush

    Sander Vanocur acts as moderator for the vice presidential debate between Geraldine Ferraro and George Bush on October 11, 1984, in Philadelphia.
    In 1984, Ronald Reagan was seeking reelection and running against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, the former vice president to Jimmy Carter. To gain ground against the popular Reagan, Mondale made history by choosing then-Congresswoman Ferraro of New York. He hoped to appeal to women, many of whom were alienated by Reagan.
    From the outset, Ferraro, who had a reputation for being a strong and serious politician, faced blatant sexism. The media questioned her credibility as a candidate and probed her background. The issue of her husband's financial dealings, including the release of his tax returns, also dogged her during the campaign. Bush's wife, Barbara Bush, described Ferraro this way: "I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich." (She later called to apologize, but the snafu made "Saturday Night Live").
    In her debate with Bush, Ferraro had to walk a fine line between appearing too assertive and not assertive enough. Before the debate, the Bush camp pronounced her "too bitchy." But she came out swinging against Reagan's record as president: "I'll become a one-woman truth squad," she promised, "and we'll start tonight."
    Bush defended Reagan, but he also veered into male chauvinism. In one infamous episode from the debate, he resorted to flagrant mansplaining when he said: "Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon."
    Ferraro was outraged and shot back in an apparently unrehearsed line: "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."
    As if this weren't bad enough, Ferraro also faced down oblivious journalists. A reporter at the debate asked if she thought the Soviets "might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman."
    Viewers who watched the debate generally awarded victory to Bush, and the election results in November yielded a landslide for the Republican ticket. But Ferraro had broken new ground and paved the way for future women to run on a major party ticket.
    "The real test of my candidacy will come," Ferraro concluded in her 1985 memoir, "when the next woman runs for national office."

    2008: Sarah Palin vs. Joe Biden

    Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin participate in their vice presidential candidates' debate October 2, 2008, at Washington University in St. Louis.
    John McCain's decision to select Palin as his running mate worried Barack Obama and Joe Biden's team. The young governor of Alaska exuded folksy charm, with colorful lines about hockey moms, Joe Sixpack,