What would Geraldine do?

In July 1984, Geraldine Ferraro stood on the podium at the Democratic National Convention to accept her party’s nomination for vice president—the first woman in U.S. history to see her name on a major party presidential ticket.

Although she never actually made it to the White House, Ferraro—who died Saturday at the age of 75—did something audacious. She issued an unforgettable challenge to the presidency’s long-standing program of affirmative action for white, straight men. You may have heard of it. It’s called Basically the Entire History of the World.

That white-dude-industrial complex proved so formidable that it took over two decades before another woman managed to put her own Alaskan soccer mom-shaped crack in the Oval Office glass ceiling. But on the day Ferraro died, there still had never been a woman in our nation’s highest office.

Welcome to American politics (or as Will Smith once said, bienvenidos a American politics), where we’re nothing if not awkwardly low on women in high places. In 2011, 27 years after Ferraro’s historic run, women make up only 17 percent of the U.S. Congress (22 percent in North Carolina’s General Assembly). In fact, the United States currently ranks 72nd in the world for female political representation, sandwiched between a couple of other international beacons for democracy, Turkmenistan and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But before I came to Duke, I have to admit these statistics always felt to me a little like John Boehner’s tears—pretty meaningless. As far as I could tell, those numbers were the last remnants of an era when women like Ferraro and Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton had taken heat for simultaneously possessing a hunger for political power and two X chromosomes. But now that they’d kicked the crap out of all the stereotypes about female politicians, I thought, it was going to be smooth sailing for the women of my generation.

That logic held up great until it smacked straight into this annoying thing called reality. As it turns out, most of those older female politicians got their start when they were in college. In fact, more than half the women in Congress today served on their university or high school student governments. (Elizabeth Dole, who you may know from such blockbuster roles as Being Your Senator (2003-09), was president of the Women’s College student government at Duke in 1958.)

But there has been exactly one female Duke Student Government president in the last decade—and only seven since the University went coed in 1972. Only 25 percent of current DSG senators are women, and three women were appointed to the 13-person executive cabinet for this academic year. There are five vice presidents this year, and five of them are men.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that most of the day-to-day functions of DSG are highly pointless. As in Writing 20 pointless. Ugg boots in May pointless. Trying to convince Duke students that they don’t need to dress like they’re on a yacht all the time pointless. But if this is the field from which our generation’s female politicians are being drawn, it’s worth thinking about who we’re choosing to represent us, and why. Because right now, it’s slim pickings.

And the thing is, diversity at the top does make a difference. When Ferraro was asked about abortion during the 1984 vice-presidential debate, she was the first candidate in the history of that position who could begin her response, “If I were pregnant ...”

Here at Duke, it was Nan Keohane, the University’s first and only female president, who launched the Women’s Initiative, one of the most sweeping attempts to reform structural gender inequalities in the school’s history.

A man could have done that, too, but it was a woman who finally did.

During the 1984 presidential campaign, Barbara Bush once infamously referred to Ferraro as a “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.” Those are fighting words, but I like to imagine Ferraro took it as a challenge. If getting ahead in politics meant being aggressive and no-nonsense, she was all for it. She later wrote that her candidacy “said to the world that no longer in this country would people be kept from participating in national leadership because of gender.”

But that’s not something you can just say once. It takes people making it happen over and over and over again, until it doesn’t even warrant a second glance when a woman is DSG President. Or a congressperson. Or even President of the United States.

I don’t know about you, but I think having women that well integrated into our political landscape would be ... oh, I can’t say it, but it rhymes with shmawesome.

Ryan Brown is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday.


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