Reflections from 1984: Gender Struggles and Gains

In August, Kamala Harris became only the fourth woman, and the first woman of color, to be nominated for national office by a major political party in the United States. It wasn’t so long ago – 36 years to be exact – that congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro from New York became the first to break the gender barrier when she was nominated for vice president as Walter Mondale’s running mate. Longtime DSA member Chris Riddiough was a delegate at that historic Democratic Party convention and reported on it for the Washington Socialist. At the time Riddiough was a national vice-chair of DSA and director of lesbian rights for the National Organization for Women (NOW). She later served as DSA national director, and remains active in national DSA and the Metro-DC local.  

The Mondale-Ferraro ticket, of course, lost the 1984 general election to Reagan-Bush.  Will Harris go beyond past woman nominees and become the first member of her gender elected to national office?
-- Bill Mosley


Women: Struggles and Gains

by Chris Riddiough, from the 1984 issue of Washington Socialist

I left for San Francisco on Thursday, July 12. While getting ready to head to the airport, I heard a news report that indicated Walter Mondale was going to announce his vice presidential pick later that day and that the likely choice was Geraldine Ferraro. I picked up the Mondale-Ferraro button I’d gotten at the NOW conference two weeks earlier and headed for the plane.

When I arrived in San Francisco that afternoon I heard ithad actually happened – there would be a woman on the ticket of a major political party for the first time in U.S. history.

That, for women, is the key to the story of the Democratic Convention. Even as ‘jaded’ an organizer as I was not only politically pleased at the choice of Ferraro, but also personally thrilled. Having worked with NOW on the Mondale campaign for several months, I thought I had become inured to seeing the campaign in those terms. I felt as millions of women around the U.S. that slating Ferraro was not simply another step forward for women, but a real opening of doors for half the population and for me.

Following the convention, voter registration around the country reported major upswings in the numbers of women registering to vote; NOW offices started getting tens and hundreds of calls from women who wanted to work on the campaign. The selection of Ferraro has transformed the campaign – excited many and given all of us the opportunity to win in November.

Once at the convention there were of course many points of controversy among the delegates and others who were there. The Women’s Caucus whip system was shut down on Sunday because the selection of Ferraro meant that its main task had already been done.

That decision was later seen as an error, particularly in light of the fights over platform planks on ‘no first strike,’ reduced defense spending, affirmative action, Central America, and second primaries. NOW has passed resolutions in support of all but the ‘no first strike’ and Central America planks (only because they hadn’t been brought to the NOW conference in June). NOW’s own whip system worked to get NOW delegates to support the minority planks with some success. The planks, put forward by the Jackson campaign, all got higher vote totals than Jackson himself.

The other chief controversy was over the role of minority women in the Democratic Party. While Mondale had interviewed minority men, all the women interviewed for vice president were white. Minority women – both Jackson and Mondale supporters – were concerned about this. Ongoing discussions at the convention between representatives of the Black Caucus and groups like NOW and the Mondale campaign worked to resolve some of these issues without clear success.

Since then, the recent formation of the National Black Women’s Political Caucus indicates that minority women are beginning to move in the direction of playing a separate role in the electoral arena from both the older, predominately white women’s groups and from black, predominately male civil rights groups.

The platform that was passed contained numerous planks of interest to women, including support for pay equity, non-discrimination in insurance, vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws, and support for gay and lesbian rights. In the case of the latter planks, the platform clearly went far beyond anything previously adopted by any major party. While many left commentators (such as In These Times) described the document as reactionary, that must be amended to include a sense that in terms of women and lesbians and gay men, the platform is in fact fairly progressive.

I have not touched in this brief description on many of the significant events of convention week – Jesse Jackson’s stirring speech and the key role he continues to play in national politics, Gary Hart’s fast fade in San Francisco to one of a fairly minor player – these events have been described elsewhere.

What this summary does suggest is that we – as democratic socialists – should begin to take women as seriously as a political force as does the Democratic Party. We must recognize that feminist organizations generally and NOW in particular play an important and progressive role in national politics. Our campaign work this fall and our feminist work thereafter must be undertaken with this understanding in order to be as effective as possible.

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