By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic congresswoman who became the first woman on a major party presidential ticket as Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, died on Saturday at the age of 75, her family said.
Ferraro died at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston of a blood cancer after a 12-year illness, according to a statement from her family.
"Her courage and generosity of spirit throughout her life waging battles big and small, public and personal, will never be forgotten and will be sorely missed," the statement said.
Ferraro was an energetic and articulate three-term congresswoman with a liberal reputation when Mondale picked her from the male-dominated U.S. House of Representatives. Ferraro's presence on the Democratic ticket generated excitement on the campaign trail, particularly among women.
Yet on Election Day, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush won in a landslide, carrying every state except Mondale's home state of Minnesota.
In delivering her concession speech that night, Ferraro saluted Mondale for helping women reach new political heights.
"For two centuries, candidates have run for president. Not one from a major party ever asked a woman to be his running mate -- until Walter Mondale," she said. "Campaigns, even if you lose them, do serve a purpose. My candidacy has said the days of discrimination are numbered."
She drew attention during the campaign for breaking with her Catholic Church in supporting abortion rights.
As the first Italian-American on a major presidential ticket, Ferraro also faced questions about whether her family had connections to organized crime but none surfaced. The finances of her husband, John Zaccaro, also faced scrutiny.
President Barack Obama praised Ferraro's service and said she would have an impact on his daughters' lives.
"Geraldine will forever be remembered as a trailblazer who broke down barriers for women and Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life," he said in a statement. "... Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live."
PIONEER FOR PALIN
In the years that followed Ferraro's candidacy, more women were elected to Congress and governorships and earned spots in presidential cabinets. No woman was on a presidential ticket, however, until Sarah Palin was chosen as the running mate for Republican John McCain in his losing 2008 campaign.
"So very sad, the passing of Geraldine Ferraro," Palin tweeted on Saturday. "God bless her family and friends; thank you for sharing this accomplished American with all of us."
In that 2008 election, Ferraro was a strong supporter of Democratic New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady. But Ferraro got the Clinton campaign in trouble when she said Clinton's rival, Obama, who was trying to become the first black presidential nominee, would not be leading the pack if he were white or a woman.
"He happens to be very lucky to be who he is," she said.
Some called her comments racist but she denied any racist sentiments. Still, she left Clinton's campaign shortly after.
Ferraro was born on August 26, 1935, in Newburgh, New York. Her father, Dominick, an Italian immigrant restaurant owner, died when she was 8. Her mother, Antonetta, was a seamstress.
Ferraro was a grade-school teacher and prosecutor in New York City before being elected to the House in 1978, representing the Queens section of New York City.
She gave up the seat to run with Mondale and then lost Democratic Senate primaries in 1992 and 1998.
In 1998, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, but continued to lead an active life. She worked as a TV commentator and contributor for CNN and Fox News.
During the 1984 campaign, Ferraro was the target of sexist remarks, including some by Bush and his wife, Barbara. Mrs. Bush, talking to two reporters, said she and her husband had no intention of hiding their wealth -- "not like that 4 million dollar -- I can't say it but it rhymes with 'rich.'"
Bush, after his debate with Ferraro, told a group of longshoremen, "We tried to kick a little ass last night."
At a news conference the next day, Ferraro replied: "I would not address my opponent in the same way."
(Editing by Bill Trott and Doina Chiacu)