The New York Times marked Geraldine Ferraro's death with the observation that by gaining the Democrats' vice presidential nomination in 1984, she kicked aside ancient barriers to women's acquisition of national political power.
Bah, humbug. What barriers? The Ferraro story clicks neatly in place as an installment in the approved narrative of women's rise from oppression to near ubiquity in human affairs: for all that she and Walter Mondale lost the '84 election overwhelmingly, and, further, that no woman since then has won the presidency or vice presidency.
The Ferraro candidacy was a gamble that went nowhere. It bore hardly at all on the question of general willingness to accept women leaders. We already did accept them -- depending on what woman it was and what she promised to do.
It could be said in the '80s that if American men by the droves had an ideal woman, a dream girl, it was Maggie Thatcher, prime minister of the United Kingdom: fighter, thinker, leader. She was -- still is, bless her -- the ultra of will and fiber and strength in political action and calculation. She turned around Britain and its economy. Only after a pack of jealous, self-serving males forced her out -- I grant, she may have overstayed her once-enthusiastic welcome -- did government in Britain revert to pre-Thatcher fecklessness and folly.
The problem Mrs. Ferraro (may she rest in peace) couldn't ooch around was not male hostility to the idea of a woman (just imagine!) ordering around various generals and cabinet officers and so forth. The problem -- to detach it from her running mate's implausibility as successor to Ronald Reagan -- was the vagueness of her own principles and attachments. What, for goodness' sake, did the woman stand for? To put it another way, what had she stood for prior to '84?
With Thatcher, that question never arose. She had a lifelong record of commitment to conservative principle, for which she was never afraid to stand up. She was never timorous when it came to proclaiming the virtues of freedom and the dignity of hard work. As a congresswoman, Ferraro was just kind of there, voting generally for the liberal position. She had no fizz. There didn't seem much she particularly wanted to do -- except get elected. How did that differentiate her from the male donkeys in the Democratic wagon train?
Say what one will of Sarah Palin -- and there's plenty to say, both pro and con -- she excited the voters three years ago in a manner more reminiscent of Thatcher than of Ferraro. You might not have liked her ideas; you might be right, actually, in characterizing some of them as non-ideas. What she succeeded in selling was the idea of herself as leader. She seemed to know where she wanted to go -- even more clearly than did the inscrutable Hillary Clinton.
The idea of male chauvinism as hindrance to the political advancement of women is a non-starter, for all the media gabble about "glass ceilings." People who want a job done care less about who does it compared to that it should get done well and effectively. For women gubernatorial candidates, 2010 was a great year: major pick-ups by Republicans in South Carolina (an Indian woman yet), Oklahoma and New Mexico.
May I say it again? Republicans: Members of the party, supposedly, whose males haven't been happy since women quit vacuuming the house in pearls. Each of these particular women spoke with resonance about public issues of concern -- Mary Fallin of Oklahoma pulling a Palin by backing liberalized gun-carry legislation that her male predecessor had vetoed.
In due course, perhaps, the media will have done with obsessions over "trailblazers" and "glass ceilings" and will focus less on sex than ideas. You'll remember ideas -- flashes of understanding that unite the unlikeliest people; people of different sexes, races, habitats; voting and working together to establish that politics is anything but sideshow and self-promotion. That's politics at its best, I mean, of course. Maybe we'll get there yet.