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Geraldine Ferraro

Geraldine Ferraro, who died on March 26 aged 75, was the first woman to run on a main party ticket in an American presidential election, although she also entered the record books by going down to defeat in the greatest Republican landslide in American history.

Her example inspired women in the US to seek high political office, preparing the way for Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy in 2008 and John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the same year; Sarah Palin herself said that Ferraro "broke one huge barrier".

As running-mate to the Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential elections, Ferraro had come a long way from her upbringing as the daughter of working-class Italian immigrants in the South Bronx.

Not that the party had much of a hope. Buoyed by a booming economy and by low inflation and low unemployment, the Republican president, Ronald Reagan, was riding high.

The selection of Ferraro, a relatively unknown congresswoman from Queens, as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate generated excitement in the media and among the party faithful, delivering a united party convention which took the spotlight away from Mondale's critics in the party.

Accepting the vice-presidential nomination, Ferraro told delegates: "My name is Geraldine Ferraro. I stand before you to proclaim tonight: America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us." She received an eight-minute ovation.

Partly because she was a woman, Ferraro came in for intense press scrutiny; and her campaign was dogged by allegations about the financial shenanigans of her husband, John Zaccaro, a property dealer in lower Manhattan.

The Washington Post reported that Zaccaro was renting warehouse space to a company that distributed pornography; there were also rumours that he owed back taxes, had connections with the Mob and had raided a trust fund of which he was a trustee. As she became mired in allegations of sleaze, there was some discussion in the Mondale camp of taking Ferraro's name off signs and bumper stickers, though removing her from the Democratic ticket was never a serious consideration as it would have torpedoed the campaign.

In October, Ferraro seemed to hold her own in the televised vice-presidential debate with her Republican counterpart George HW Bush, although most pundits agreed that Bush had succeeded in carrying out the instructions of his advisers "to win, but not to have her lose". No such considerations applied to Bush's wife Barbara, who was quoted as describing Ferraro as "a four million dollar ... I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich" -- implying that the homespun, housewifely image was a fraud.

On November 6, Reagan and Bush defeated Mondale and Ferraro in the greatest Republican landslide in American history. The Republicans carried every state but Minnesota -- Mondale's home state. It was the largest landslide since Franklin D Roosevelt's first re-election over Alf Landon in 1936. Geraldine Ferraro left Congress in 1985.

Geraldine Anne Ferraro was born on August 26, 1935, at Newburgh, New York. Her father, Dominick Ferraro, was a first-generation Italian immigrant who in the Thirties ran a popular nightclub -- possibly, some reports suggested, under the patronage of the organised crime boss Michael DeVasto.

Ferraro won a scholarship to Marymount College in Manhattan, then worked as a teacher while studying for a law degree at night school. After graduating in 1960, the year in which she married John Zaccaro, she practised law part-time for 13 years while bringing up her son and two daughters.

In 1974 she was appointed assistant district attorney in the Investigations Bureau in Queens; then, a year later, she joined the Queens County District Attorney's office, where she started the Special Victims Bureau, overseeing the prosecution of sex crimes, child abuse, domestic violence and crimes against the elderly. Four years later she was elected to Congress, representing the 9th Congressional District in Queens.

During her time in Congress, Ferraro championed women's rights, and became a strong critic of the Reagan government's economic policies and its support for the Contras in Nicaragua. In 1980 she was elected secretary of the Democratic caucus, and in 1984 became chairman of its platform committee.

In 1992 she ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for a Senate seat in New York, when she again had to face down allegations about her husband's business dealings along with stories about her son, who had been convicted of cocaine dealing.

In 1994 President Bill Clinton appointed her American ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. She served there until 1996, then became host of CNN's Crossfire, a political talk show.

In December 1998, following another unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Senate, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. While being treated, she became a spokesman for thalidomide, the drug that had been taken off the market after causing more than 10,000 severe deformities in children whose mothers took it for morning sickness but is thought to hold out hope for multiple myeloma sufferers.

Ferraro was the author of three books: Ferraro: My Story; Changing History; Writings on Current Affairs; and Framing a Life: A Family Memoir. She is survived by her husband and by their three children.

Sunday Independent