Our Mothers Ourselves

Geraldine Ferraro, Part One – Trailblazer for Kamala Harris. An interview with Donna Zaccaro

August 30, 2020 Donna Zaccaro Season 2 Episode 3
Our Mothers Ourselves
Geraldine Ferraro, Part One – Trailblazer for Kamala Harris. An interview with Donna Zaccaro
Chapters
Our Mothers Ourselves
Geraldine Ferraro, Part One – Trailblazer for Kamala Harris. An interview with Donna Zaccaro
Aug 30, 2020 Season 2 Episode 3
Donna Zaccaro


Our series commemorating the 19th Amendment continues, with the third and final installment. The subject: Geraldine Anne "Gerry" Ferraro (August 26, 1935 – March 26, 2011)

In the first of a  two-part interview with Ferraro's daughter, the filmmaker and producer Donna Zaccaro, Katie explores the late Congresswoman and vice-presidential candidate's early life and first years in Congress.

Ferraro was just 48 years old when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate in the 1984 presidential election.

Zaccaro's documentary about her mother, Paving the Way, is a rich portrait of a woman whose hard work and dedication to social justice left a lasting impression on society.

You can read Ferraro's speech from the 1984 Democratic National Convention, or watch it on YouTube.

Don't forget to visit us at ourmothersourselves.com. And while you're there, please contribute your word to the mother word cloud.

Music composed and performed by
Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
Intern: Rosie Manock (@RosieManock)


Show Notes Transcript


Our series commemorating the 19th Amendment continues, with the third and final installment. The subject: Geraldine Anne "Gerry" Ferraro (August 26, 1935 – March 26, 2011)

In the first of a  two-part interview with Ferraro's daughter, the filmmaker and producer Donna Zaccaro, Katie explores the late Congresswoman and vice-presidential candidate's early life and first years in Congress.

Ferraro was just 48 years old when Walter Mondale chose her as his running mate in the 1984 presidential election.

Zaccaro's documentary about her mother, Paving the Way, is a rich portrait of a woman whose hard work and dedication to social justice left a lasting impression on society.

You can read Ferraro's speech from the 1984 Democratic National Convention, or watch it on YouTube.

Don't forget to visit us at ourmothersourselves.com. And while you're there, please contribute your word to the mother word cloud.

Music composed and performed by
Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
Intern: Rosie Manock (@RosieManock)


Intro :

My mother was a woman of tremendous integrity. My mother was curious, sensitive, compassionate, honest, always there for us, unflappable, loyal, complicated, she is devoted, resilient, dazzling, giving, vivacious, extraordinary.

Donna Zaccaro :

My father said, You know, I expect you to stay home to take care of the kids. He said that his mother did that. And she said, Well, I love your mother, but she's not a lawyer. And my father struck a deal with her.

Katie Hafner :

Hello, and welcome to our mothers ourselves a weekly conversation about one extraordinary mother. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. If you're under the age of about 45, you're not likely to know this. But 36 years ago, a Congresswoman from Queens was nominated as Vice President of the United States on the ticket with Walter Mondale. Her name was Geraldine Ferraro and she was 48 years old. Now that might not seem so monumental because female vice presidential candidates and presidential candidates have been central to recent political campaigns. But until 1984, that had never happened. Geraldine Ferraro was the first. So in this the third interview of our series commemorating the 19th amendment to tell the story of Geraldine Ferraro, who was known as Gerry, I'm talking with her eldest child, Donna's Zaccaro, a filmmaker and producer whose 2013 documentary, "Paving the Way" is a rich portrait of her mom, the daughter of Italian immigrants, a devout Catholic, a champion of human rights, and a mother of three. The film is streaming on iTunes. Ferraro died in 2011, of Multiple Myeloma when she was 75. I'm calling this one the Trailblazer. Here's the first of two parts. So Donna Zaccaro, I would like to thank you so much for joining me on Our Mothers Ourselves to talk to me about you're, trying to think of an adjective to describe her, if you could describe her in one adjective, what would it be.

Donna Zaccaro :

Extraordinary. And thank you so much for having me. I never tire of talking about my mother. And I miss her every day honestly. You know, the interesting thing, obviously, growing up as her daughter, I didn't realize quite how extraordinary she was, until having or being a mother myself, but also having years of hindsight. And then when I did the documentary about her, I went back and looked at every piece of footage I could find of her. And that's also when it really became clear just how extraordinary she was.

Katie Hafner :

Her birthday is August 26.

Donna Zaccaro :

Women's Equality Day. Yes.

Katie Hafner :

Quite a coincidence. Did she ever talk about that coincidence?

Donna Zaccaro :

Every year, she celebrated both. I mean, it seemed like karma or fate. I mean, she fought for equality her entire life.

Katie Hafner :

Before we go all the way back to her early childhood and her parents and her ancestors, what do you think she would make of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden's pick and everything that's happening now?

Donna Zaccaro :

My mother would have been thrilled by the pick of Kamala. She'd be so excited. First of all, that Joe Biden had decided to choose a woman or had made the commitment to choose a woman. But then she also would have felt that Kamala was absolutely the right choice, right now on so many different levels. And it's, it's interesting to me too, how similar they are many ways or their backgrounds are you know, they're both former prosecutors, lawyers, very focused on justice and the children of immigrants and rising stars in the Democratic Party. Neither one of them had ever lost an election prior. And so, you know, there are lots of similarities. And I think she would have been very, very pleased that Joe Biden had decided to, that he was going to pick a woman in much the same way as some Walter Mondale did, although he, Walter Mondale was the first one to actually open up the vice presidential selection process to non white men. He saw it as an extension of the civil rights work. And to some extent, I think that Joe Biden did too, or does too. You know, I think he was very focused on opening the doors of opportunity and how representation matters.

Katie Hafner :

You know, I went back and I listen to your mom's acceptance speech at the 1984 convention. And oh my gosh, unbelievable. How much humility there is to her.

Geraldine Ferraro :

Ladies and gentlemen of the convention. My name is Geraldine Ferraro.

Katie Hafner :

Let's go all the way back to your mom's early childhood. And where she was born, who her parents were, where they came from.

Donna Zaccaro :

So her, she was born in Newburgh, New York. Newburgh is just about two hours north of Manhattan, on the Hudson River. Her father was an Italian immigrant. And he came to New York by himself and he met my grandmother who was an Italian American. Her parents had immigrated. She only had an eighth grade education while she was forced to leave school. For high school, she couldn't go to high school.

Katie Hafner :

We're talking about your mom's mom Antonetta?

Donna Zaccaro :

This is Antonetta, exactly. Her principal actually came to the house because she wanted her to go to high school. And her mother, Antonettta's mother, my great grandmother said that she couldn't because she had to go to work to help support the family. But she always knew that she wanted an education and wished that she had had one and impressed that upon my mother. Hell bent on my mother having an education. My grandfather, he had met my grandmother In New York City, but they moved up to Newburgh and he ran something called the Roxy, which was a restaurant and bar. And they also had a five and dime store that my grandmother ran. And then he suddenly died of a heart attack when my mother was eight, which totally changed her life.

Katie Hafner :

The circumstances of her dad's death must have been really traumatic for her as an eight year old.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes, I mean, she tells a story. She told the story, that she was the apple of his eye and she would run into her parents bedroom every morning. And she did that morning, the morning of his death. And her mother said to her, Jerry don't go in. And she looked in and her father looked turned and looked at her and then he died and he had carried her up the stairs the night before. And so she, You know, she always wondered and sort of blamed herself, you know, maybe his carrying up the stairs at the age of eight is what gave him the heart attack.

Katie Hafner :

Kids do that.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yep. But anyway, so she, her family was then thrown into disarray because her mother couldn't manage anything, really. And they ended up moving to the South Bronx,

Katie Hafner :

and did your mom have siblings?

Donna Zaccaro :

She had an older brother. She actually had three older brothers two of whom had died. And one of them had died in a car accident. In my grandmother's arms, he had been thrown from my grandmother's arms, and his name was Gerard. And so the doctor when my grandmother was in the hospital recovering from the car accident, said to her that the best thing she could do would be to get pregnant again. So my mother really actually always felt that she was born to replace her older brother.

Katie Hafner :

But in a, but in a good way.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

And so she was named Geraldine.

Donna Zaccaro :

After him. Right.

Katie Hafner :

Gerry, and called Gerry.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

So they go to, after your grandfather died. Her mom moved the family to the South Bronx into a tiny apartment?

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes. She went and worked as a sweatshop worker. The skill that she had learned when she was in high school was to crochet beading. She would she would be, she would sew beads on to fancy dresses, you know, ball gowns or whatever. Wherever there's elaborate beading on a dress, or a jacket. That was the sort of work handwork that she did. So she went back to work to try and support the family. And because she was working these crazy hours and not making much money to support them, she felt that she needed to get them put into, placed into boarding school. So my uncle actually went to military school. And my mother, she managed to get her into Marymount in Tarrytown, which was a private school that doesn't exist anymore. Anyway, so she figured out a way with the nuns, to have my mother's tuition paid for by income from Italy, believe it or not that because I guess my grandfather had property left to him there. His family had some property and they managed a way to get the income from that to pay for her education, at Marymount through through, the end of high school, actually. And then she got a full scholarship to college.

Katie Hafner :

And so it sounds like she was raised, pretty devoutly Catholic, is that right?

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes. She, she really felt like she was raised in as equally by the nuns as my grandmother. You know, she went to church every day when she was growing up. And that's why not to jump ahead, but the attacks by the church on her during the '84 campaign were so hurtful, because she really considered her religion very important to her. So it was very difficult.

Katie Hafner :

It must have been so painful and also must have felt like just such a stab because her, her Catholicism obviously mattered to her a lot. And there was always that looming issue, controversy of abortion throughout her political life, I'm sure.

Donna Zaccaro :

Well, I mean, she also felt that it was quite unfair, well on two different fronts, because first of all, there's supposed to be separation of church and state. And so, you know, they should be upholding the law and recognize that but Mario Cuomo had the exact same position that she did. And actually, so did Ted Kennedy, and neither one of them were criticized to the same extent as she was.

Katie Hafner :

And if she felt like it was a terrible double standard, you don't see that in anything she says publicly.

Donna Zaccaro :

No, I, I don't think, I think she recognized that it had much more impact coming from a woman who could say I would never have an abortion, or I mean, she could talk about it in very personal terms, but I would not impose my position. You know, my personal decisions on anyone else. It is the law. But I think it wouldn't have made sense to point out the double standard because she didn't want them to be equally criticized.

Katie Hafner :

Alright, so when she got out of college her, her options were housewife, telephone operator, nurse or teacher.

Donna Zaccaro :

Pretty much. And she became a teacher. And actually she loved teaching all those kids. I think it was second through fourth grade and, and she got lots of colds because she used to kiss every one of them every day when they left, I guess or they hug her. But she wanted to do more than that. And so that's why she did to go to law school at night.

Katie Hafner :

And where did she go to law school?

Donna Zaccaro :

She went to Fordham. She was one of two women in her class.

Katie Hafner :

And how did she meet your dad?

Donna Zaccaro :

She had met my dad when they were both in college. They were both on a double date with other people. It was at what was then called a transvestite club. There were a group of Marymount girls there. And a group I guess of Iona boys. My father went to Iona. Anyway, as I said, they were with different people and my, my, all the other girls or young women were offended by the dancing and what was going on. And my mother thought it was a hoot. And so she stayed the other ones left. And and so that's how my father ended up talking to her more with each with their other dates.

Katie Hafner :

At the transvestite club? That's interesting, and what year would that have been?

Donna Zaccaro :

I think they were married in '59. So and they probably went out for five years. So you know, maybe it was around '55, '56.

Katie Hafner :

So then when they got married, this is one of my favorite parts of your mom's story. I'd like you to tell it, their conversation about, so as I understand that your dad was a very traditional guy.

Donna Zaccaro :

He still is very traditional in many ways, but he's also one of the most progressive people I've ever come across. Well, again, he was raised very traditionally Italian American, his mother stayed home. But he knew that he was marrying a woman who was a lawyer and not so much like his mother other than the fact that she also was Italian American. She couldn't, she had a tough time getting a job though, actually, right when she graduated from law school and when they got married, because all the different firms she went to said to her, we're not hiring women this year. Or we're not hiring Italians. She did get one job offer that was then rescinded. When she told them she was getting married and going on her honeymoon, because they said that she would get pregnant. So um, she was having a tough time getting a job anyway. And when she got pregnant, my father said, you know, I expect you to stay home to take care of the kids. And she said, well, he said that his mother did that. And she said, well, I love your mother, but she's not a lawyer. And my, my father struck a deal with her. And he said, well, how about you stay home with the kids until they're all in school full time, and then I'll support you in whatever you want to do. And the punch line there is that he had no idea that she was going to go into politics. He thought she'd go have a very, Staid legal career.

Katie Hafner :

Oops.

Donna Zaccaro :

Well, the first thing she did do, full time was actually go work in the District Attorney's Office as a an Assistant District Attorney. It wasn't quite, you know, it wasn't as demanding as politics in that it wasn't 24/7, 7 days a week. But emotionally it was very difficult because she handled all the sex crimes, citizen crimes and child abuse cases. Which is how she decided to come up with the name Special Victims Bureau because she felt that all those victims needed to be treated specially.

Katie Hafner :

And did she coined that?

Donna Zaccaro :

She did. She created the first Special Victims Bureau. But she used to have children testify while sitting on her lap. She had women testify remotely, she didn't want those victims to be victimized a second time in court. You know, I mean, you're reliving the whole thing.

Katie Hafner :

You know, she really had ambition from a very early age, and I wonder where that came from. What? What's your, what's your guess?

Donna Zaccaro :

I think she got it from her mother. She, though her mother wasn't ever able to realize or achieve her ambitions. And, you know, I don't know that my mother ever thought that she be vice president or president. But once she was put in the position it she never had any second thoughts about whether she was capable of doing that. You know, she was raised, as were we, that you could do anything you wanted to do, as long as you worked hard, played by the rules, and did everything you could to do the best job that you could.

Katie Hafner :

Which makes me think that kind of the gender stereotypes didn't really faze her in any way because she crossed them. She transcended them. And also I had to laugh when I was, when I was watching the documentary. This really got my attention when she said, Oh, yeah, my mom loves, everybody loves Shirley Temple back then and I had the Shirley Temple curls and I had about 53 dolls.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

And and I have to tell you that I just interviewed the last episode was with Elizabeth Cady Stanton's great, great granddaughter who talked about how her mother was not allowed to play with dolls. And I thought what a contrast.

Donna Zaccaro :

You know, my grandmother was told by her brother, when my mother was in high school, why would you want to send her to college? or Why should she go to college? She's pretty enough. She'll get married. It was my grandmother that really advocated for her. But I also started the film with those shots of her in an Uncle Sam costume because she wanted to be Uncle Sam one year for Halloween and her grandmother said, why not? I mean, her mother, my grandmother said why not? You could be anything you want to be.

Katie Hafner :

I want to know what your very first memory is of your mother, as a working mother.

Donna Zaccaro :

I remember being annoyed that I couldn't get her anytime or speak to her anytime I wanted. You know, she went back to work when I was 12 because I'm the eldest, and there weren't cell phones and suddenly I couldn't reach her anytime I wanted to. But the other the more serious side of it was I remember her coming home from work with her cases and discussing them with us. And she actually used to read her briefs to me to sort of try them out on me, as if I were the jury. And I remember her being just so upset by what was happening to so many of the victims. But I also remember her coming, she came and spoke to my school when I was in high school and I remember being terrified that she was going to embarrass me, I, I apparently said to her, whatever you do, just don't embarrass me.

Katie Hafner :

It's like a mother's job is not to embarrass her kid,

Donna Zaccaro :

Especially when they're teenagers.

Katie Hafner :

When did she first decide to run for Congress? And what is your memory of that?

Donna Zaccaro :

Well, it was 1978. And it was the spring of 1978. And she had started talking all over the place about the need for battered spouse legislation. So she threw her hat into the ring. You had a whole bunch of other people jump into the race. And she just outworked them, you know, we worked from and it was that summer, six o'clock in the morning until midnight every day. We hit every subway stop in the district twice during the summer, during rush hour. So the morning rush hour and the evening rush hour, and in between, we would be going to senior citizen centers, to shopping malls, anywhere where people would congregate and she would make her case.

Katie Hafner :

She didn't outspend them, she outworked them. And, and this is not glamorous work when you say every subway stop and every senior living facility. It is incredibly exhausting.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes, she was a street campaigner. And she was really good at it. And people supported her. And she won. She won the primary. And then she had a general election against another Italian American guy by the name of Al DelliBovi, who actually had, I think Roger Stone was his campaign manager, believe it or not. So the dirty tricks started back then.

Katie Hafner :

Were there dirty tricks?

Donna Zaccaro :

Oh, yeah. They said, you know, they started calling my father a slumlord. But then she had, you know, a campaign aide who would go to events with her in the evening accompany her. And so then there was a whole thing about how she was having an affair with him. So they started having a female campaign worker company or on events in the evening. And then she was having an affair with her.

Katie Hafner :

Oh my god.

Donna Zaccaro :

So that's how my father ended up getting recruited into going to all the evening events with her, throughout her entire congressional career.

Katie Hafner :

Yeah, I guess it's not surprising. Speaking of why she wanted to run for Congress, one thing she said about 10 minutes into the film is,

Geraldine Ferraro :

I don't know you have to walk around telling your kids life isn't fair. I think it's up to all of us to make it fair.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

Did she? Did she say that to you? Like, I'm not going to tell you life isn't fair just do something about it.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes, and she wasn't, She was a very pragmatic politician and person. You know, she always said, it doesn't do you any good to whine about or to even talk about how things aren't fair. You look at what your situation is, you figure out how to deal with it, and then you move on. So that's how she conducted her life. She never looked back. And she was always trying to make things better and solve problems until she died. You know, I mean, right up until the end, I kept saying I said to her, you know, you've got nothing to prove anymore. Why are you still doing this? Because she was advocating for other myeloma patients for more myeloma research. That's actually why she went public with her disease because she wanted to get more funding for research into the disease because it wasn't being funded. She looked at me, sort of puzzled. I don't know the exact words, but she said something to the effect of if you don't use where you are and what you've achieved to help someone else then why are you there?

Katie Hafner :

Alright, so she gets to Congress. And it's a brutal schedule. So she's basically commuting, right?

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes. So that was actually about as doable as you can get because we were only 10 to 15 minutes away from the airport. So she was going back and forth almost every day, initially. She usually tried to make it home for dinner. I mean, she would make it home at five. We'd have dinner later than that.

Katie Hafner :

And she cooked dinner. Right?

Donna Zaccaro :

Well, we, we also had a housekeeper.

Katie Hafner :

Uh huh.

Donna Zaccaro :

The housekeeper would cook dinner during the week. And then on the weekend she cooked dinner.

Katie Hafner :

What did she like to cook?

Donna Zaccaro :

Mostly Italian. Actually, I just made it last weekend for my father was Veal a la Marsala. But you know, simple food.

Katie Hafner :

It also sounds like your, your mom when she was in Congress, there was a lot of across the aisle, mutual respect, collaboration.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes. And that was very important for me to include in the film. She, no she she was very much in the mold of Tip O'Neill. In that she always worked with people across the aisle, particularly the women. I mean, all the women were very close to each other, if for no other reason off the, the House floor, there was a women's cloakroom that, you know, there were only a handful of them. So that's where they would hang out when they weren't voting on things. It was, it was basically a ladies room. I mean literally.

Katie Hafner :

I didn't know about that. I mean, I should have guessed, but yeah, I bet some pretty interesting conversations took place. Did your teacher mom ever talk about those 13 years she spent at home as a stay at home mom as a sacrifice?

Donna Zaccaro :

No, no, because she was always busy. I mean, my mother was, even though she wasn't working out of the house. I mean, she was doing a lot of volunteer work. She was doing volunteer legal work. She volunteered a lot at school. She was very involved in our school work. She taught an after school class in macrame. Which a friend of mine just reminded me of the other day.

Katie Hafner :

It, it sounds like your mom was the original supermom, but never said anything like I'm doing it all.

Donna Zaccaro :

Well, my mother would never say that she was a super mom. And she would say, though, that you can have it all. You just can't have it all at the same time. So she always said, you know, you have to prioritize things and you do the best job you can do at everything. And it's probably not the best job that you could do it when there's one thing but you know, she told people not to worry about the dust bunnies. Or you know that maybe your house isn't the cleanest, though that is sort of ironic because she was a fanatic about cleaning.

Katie Hafner :

Really?

Donna Zaccaro :

Yeah. But anyway, she did say to people, you, you do your best and you don't beat yourself up. And you do the best you could do

Katie Hafner :

Tell me. What did she, hat did she say to you and your sister personally about abortion?

Donna Zaccaro :

You know, we never had that conversation. We never had that conversation. We never actually, honestly, I don't know that I should talk about this, but I don't know that we ever even talked about birth control. So, I mean, it was, it was more, we always heard her talking about it publicly. I don't know. We never talked about it at home.

Katie Hafner :

And she, you, all of you were raised Catholic I take it?

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes. And we went to church every week. I mean, I'll tell you a story. We were, it was right before Easter. It was my senior year of high school. And we went shopping to get dresses for Easter. And we popped, there was actually right where we were, right in near St. Patrick's Cathedral, so you we went into St. Patrick's Cathedral and to do confession, because we were right there. And we went in, each of us went into a different confessional, and I came out and was doing my penance. And she was in there for about another 20 minutes. And she came out and I said to her, what did you do? What were you confessing to for that long? And she said, the priests, I confess that I use birth control, and the priests wanted me to stop using birth control. And I said that I wouldn't. Maybe she was 42, 41. And she said, I don't want to have another child at this point. And I'm not abstaining. And ultimately, and he wouldn't absolve her of her sins until she agreed not to use birth control anymore, so she negotiated with them. And she finally, he finally agreed that she would think about it,

Katie Hafner :

And she, it's amazing on a few levels. One is that she would sit there and negotiate with him.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes, it was very characteristic of her.

Katie Hafner :

right. And secondly, that she wouldn't actually, she had to stand her ground on it. But third that you, that when you asked her she was so completely honest about what had happened.

Donna Zaccaro :

Yes. She told me exactly. Then and she was always very outspoken, but if you asked her a question, she gave you an answer. But the other way that it was characteristic was that I probably, if that were me, I probably would have said okay, so, I guess sure, fine, Father, just tell me what I'm supposed to do for my penance. And I would have ignored it. She, she was not going to lie to him that she was going to stop committing that sin of using birth control and so she was honest with him, too.

Katie Hafner :

Let's leave it there. Next week we'll pick up with Ferraro's vice presidential nomination and the enduring truth that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our theme music is composed and performed by Andrea Perry. Paula Mangin is our artist in residence. And the show's producer is Alice Hudson. If you'd like to contribute a word to the audio word montage that starts every episode, record the one word that best describes your mother and send it to [email protected] Our mother's ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. Until next week, let's have the best week we can, given what we've got to work with.