What Geraldine Ferraro Taught Me About Toughness

What Women Really Think
March 28 2011 1:14 PM

What Geraldine Ferraro Taught Me About Toughness

In 1984, when I was in the second grade, our class at Camp Pendleton's North Terrace Elementary School held a mock election.  I came in on election day with my Mondale/Ferraro pin, ready to be a part of history. As soon as the other kids saw my pin, it was on.

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"A woman can't be vice president!" they sneered. (In my memory, it is a faceless "they" and "they" are forever sneering.)
"My dad says a woman can be anything she wants to be!" I told them.

I went to school on a military base, and my father was a Marine officer, but my sister and I had been raised by the biggest feminist I've ever known, a man who used How To Raise Strong, Confident Daughters as a parenting guide and called us "strong" instead of "pretty" to build up our self-esteem. Both of my parents had talked to us about how important it was that Geraldine Ferraro was running for vice president. Because I had also been raised in an idyllic little world in which "Marine" and "liberal feminist" were not at all contradictory, I was genuinely shocked by the reaction of my classmates.

But I also believed in what I said, and I would not back down. I was the only vote for the Democratic ticket in my class, but I didn't take that pin off all day, and I didn't change my mind the next day, when it turned out most of the country had agreed with my second-grade class. I was given a karate kick to the stomach by a fourth-grader for my nascent political radicalism, and after it knocked the air right out of me, the principal suggested to my parents that I "toughen up."  I didn't ever go back to base schools.

I would love to say that I never went back to being karate kicked to the stomach for my belief that women can do anything, either, but while I avoided that particular physical sensation, I have been figuratively kicked a thousand times in the years since. I never stopped believing that it was possible, that it was logical, that it was right that women could do whatever they wanted to do. And as I grew, I had women to point to when the nameless, faceless sneerers mocked my views and said it wasn't even possible-women like Geraldine Ferraro.  She didn't win, but she ran, she tried, and she taught a little girl that there are kicks worth taking for a higher purpose.

Jessica Roake, a frequent Slate contributor, lives in Washington, D.C.