Was Ferraro a Trailblazer or a Novelty?

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As Michael Crowley pointed out in his reflection on the death of Geraldine Ferraro over the weekend, the first woman to appear on a major party presidential ticket inspired countless women of all political persuasions. As an 11-year-old candidate for student council president of my elementary school, I proudly wore a “Mondale-Ferraro” button along with my own campaign swag throughout the fall of 1984. It didn’t do much for my chances in our Republican suburb, but every time I looked at that button, I swelled at the idea of a woman just a step away from the presidency.

So I don’t mean to diminish Ferraro’s historic role in our politics one bit by questioning whether her run really changed the way our political and media worlds thought about women in politics. Here I want to raise what is just one data point, but a telling one.

After reading this weekend that Ferraro appeared on four TIME covers in 1984 alone, I wondered whether that attention led to greater visibility for U.S. women in politics, as reflected by attention on the cover of this magazine. I looked through all of the covers from 1985 to the present, and what I found sadly didn’t surprise me much.

In the twenty years following Ferraro’s 1984 run, U.S. female politicians appeared on the cover of TIME a grand total of four times. That’s right–while Ferraro was featured four times in one year, it took two decades for TIME to place the same number of American female politicians on the cover. And that’s even using a broad definition of “politician.” The four cover women? Three cabinet secretaries–Janet Reno, Madeline Albright, and Condoleezza Rice–and U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Clinton. Not even the much-proclaimed 1992 as “The Year of the Woman,” when five women were elected to the U.S. Senate, earned a cover.

Now, yes, this tally leaves out eight covers on which Hillary Clinton appeared as First Lady. Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush also graced a total of five covers between 1985 and 1991. But those covers didn’t focus on these women as political figures, and stories headlined “Astrology in the White House” can hardly be what Ferraro envisioned as her legacy.

It wasn’t until Hillary Clinton became an elected politician that she really began to influence coverage of women in politics. And this magazine, at least, began to pay more attention. Between 2006 and 2011, TIME covers have featured 16 U.S. female politicians on 13 different covers. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin account for nine of those covers. But it’s progress that while Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s arrival on the Supreme Court earned her no cover love, Sonia Sotomayor graced a cover upon her confirmation. And while some critics may argue that putting Palin on the cover is elevating a politician of style instead of substance, that charge can’t be leveled at Michael Scherer’s cover story from last spring on Elizabeth Warren, Sheila Bair, and Mary Schapiro.

There’s still a long way to go. Nancy Pelosi has still never appeared on the cover of TIME except as the teeniest image on a collage cover of the TIME 100 in 2007. More importantly, Geraldine Ferraro’s quest has still not been realized. A few weeks ago, I started reading “Girls Can Be Anything”–my favorite childhood book–to my six-month-old daughter. I used to love following along with Marina as she proved her bossy friend Adam Sobel wrong time and again. Adam said girls couldn’t be doctors–but Marina’s mother reminded her that her aunt was a doctor. Adam said girls couldn’t be pilots–but Marina had just heard about a female pilot on the news. Adam said girls couldn’t be president–and Marina’s mother had to tell her that while women could be president, no woman had been president of the U.S. yet.

The book was published in 1975, and I still remembered it fondly in 1984 when it seemed like the first female president was surely just around the corner. It’s not so fun to read in 2011.