Geraldine Ferraro Unapologetic

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Geraldine Ferraro declined yesterday to discuss her hot-button comments about Sen. Barack Obama, but still waded into the treacherous waters of race, gender and ethnicity at a speech before 1,000 female professionals at Bryant University’s annual Women’s Summit event.

While refusing to talk about her controversial comment about Obama, she made the audience pause when she took a shot at how Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — a Republican and the second black judge to sit on the court — gained admittance to Yale University’s law school.

“Take a look and think about Justice Thurgood Marshall,” said Ferraro, referring to the first black judge to sit on the high court, “who drew on his life experiences as an African-American and as a civil-rights activist to write some of the greatest civil-rights decisions of the sixties and of the entire century.”

Then she said that she did not think Thomas showed the same “sensitivity” as Marshall.

Thomas, Ferraro said, acts as a rubber stamp for conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and “votes against affirmative action, which got him into Yale.”

Yesterday’s audience comprised leading Rhode Island professional women from the fields of academia, law, business, media and banking.

Democrat Ferraro, the former congresswoman from the New York City borough of Queens, in 1984 became the first — and only — woman to run on a national presidential ticket when she was chosen as a vice presidential candidate by the Democratic presidential standard-bearer, former Vice President Walter Mondale of Minnesota.

Ferraro is a staunch supporter of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and she was quoted recently in a California newspaper saying, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman [of any color] he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

After provoking a national media firestorm, and having her comments disavowed by Clinton and denounced by Obama, Ferraro decided yesterday to tamp down the controversy and refused to elaborate on it.

She brushed off the criticisms of Obama, who said she was being divisive, negative and engaged in “slice and dice” politics. “Have you noticed how tight the race is now,” said Ferraro to a group of reporters seeking comment after her speech. That’s what’s going on.

“So if somebody criticizes me and calls me whatever and that helps their campaign against Hillary, they’re going to do it. I’ve been in national politics. I’ve had that happen to me a few times in my lifetime,” said Ferraro.

Ferraro, 72, said in an interview before her speech that she had no formal connection with Clinton’s campaign. “I’m not anything in the campaign. I did a fundraiser.”

At the beginning of her speech, Ferraro said her candor and “frank” tongue sometimes caused her difficulties with the media and more politically correct politicians. “I’m not going to be talking about what you’ve seen on television for the last couple of days.”

In her speech Ferraro spoke of her up-from-poverty success story, saying that her father died when she was young and that she owed much of her success to her mother, who valued education and encouraged her daughter to attend college.

“My life has been one hell of a ride, but it would not have happened without my mother,” said Ferraro.

She also said that women had come a long way since her years in the U.S. House, to which she was elected in 1978 and where she served until 1985. Ferraro said that during her years in Congress, she thought she would see a woman elected president before a woman became speaker of the House, which happened last year when California Rep. Nancy Pelosi won the post.

The reason? The House, Ferraro said, was “such a male-dominated” institution when she was there that she never believed it would change much.

There was only one woman in the Senate — Nancy Landon Kassebaum, of Kansas — when she served in the House, Ferraro noted. Now there are 16. “We have made progress, but not enough … considering that we are 51 percent of the population,” said Ferraro.

While Ferraro is considered a pioneer in the history of women in American politics, her stint as a vice presidential running mate was something of a disaster. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket went down to one of the most crushing defeats in American presidential electoral history. The Democrats won only Minnesota, Mondale’s home state, that year while Republican Ronald Reagan won a 49-state sweep to reelection.

Ethnic discrimination still resonates in the United States, Ferraro said. After she was nominated for vice president, media scrutiny turned to the business activities of her husband, New York real-estate mogul John A. Zaccaro. The allegations were that Zaccaro had business ties with organized-crime figures, a charge that still stokes her ire.

Italian-Americans are too often seen in popular and political culture as associated with organized crime, Ferraro said. “Running as an Italian-American was harder than running as a woman,” said Ferraro in an interview as she recalled the allegations.

Ferraro said in her speech she hopes that one day “sexism will be as unacceptable as racism” and that women around the globe won’t be discriminated against as they are today and subjected to such horrors as genital mutilation. She also put in a word for keeping abortion legal, saying women must have “total control over their own bodies.”

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