Madame President? Elizabeth Aaron On Motherhood, Politics, and Hope
Written by Hannah Meyer
"What would life have been like if Geraldine Ferraro had become president instead of George H.W. Bush? What trajectory would she have put our country on? And would it have been different?”
“If we can do this, we can do anything!” declared Geraldine Ferraro to an electrified crowd at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco on July 19th, 1984. For a moment, the glass ceiling of the Moscone Center felt as though it was on the cusp of shattering as the first-ever female vice presidential nominee, and her running mate, Walter Mondale, geared up for the 1984 election. But Ferraro and Mondale lost in a landslide to their Republican opponents, President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush, and foreign policy entered a new, more violent era.
Oakland-based writer and actor Elizabeth Aaron recalls experiencing this moment as she and her mother watched the Democratic Convention together on television in 1984. And she re-experienced the excitement in 2020 as she watched the documentary Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way as research for her play, Gerry. “I've now lived long enough to have perspective and understand what a huge moment that was. I've experienced the struggles that come with being an independent woman. When I watched that Democratic Convention again in the documentary, it was all very familiar, but this time I cried. That moment really affected the future. And think of how much more it could have been.”
Gerry was among six other plays selected as part of Theme Night at the 2020 New Works Festival, which was cancelled due to COVID-19. The seven plays re-imagined women's place in history through envisioning alternative worlds. In 2020, we have the insight of knowing how Ferraro lost the nomination. But what if she hadn’t? “The idea for the play came after researching Ferraro and thinking about what life would have been like if she had become president instead of George H.W. Bush. What trajectory would she have put our country on? How different would it have been?”
The real-life Geraldine Ferraro was dogged with sexist inquiries about her qualifications and her husband's financial involvements. Those criticisms among other things impacted her candidacy and likely contributed to the outcome of the election. But Aaron’s play Gerry imagines a world in which Geraldine Ferraro actually becomes the first woman ever elected as president. Within Aaron’s universe, President Ferraro cares for her ailing mother while helping the country avert war amidst a national crisis. “She had to be the mother of the country and run it during a national crisis—at the same time her main caregiver, supporter, and the biggest love of her life was potentially dying. Ferraro got on her feet and did everything in her power to keep the peace when in real life George Bush sought war.”
Inspired by the contrasts between the history we know and what could have been, Aaron was equally struck by Geraldine Ferraro’s relationship to her mother, Antonetta Ferraro, a first-generation Italian immigrant. “She had the foresight to support her daughter no matter what. I have a really close relationship with my mom, too. Though she is very different from Ferraro’s mother, my mom worked to support me in a similar way. Gerry’s mom had an idea of the big picture. She was already in some way into women's liberation.” Geraldine Ferraro’s political inclinations emerged at a young age when she dressed up as Uncle Sam for Halloween, a detail lovingly memorialized in Gerry. With the unrelenting support of her mother, Ferraro became the first woman in her family to attend college and went on to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and created the Special Victims Bureau where she fought for the rights of children and the elderly.
Gerry is an homage to the essential bonds between women as they strive to break what Hillary Clinton describes as, “the highest and hardest glass ceiling.” The profound influence that Ferraro’s mother had on her life is shared by Aaron who cites her mother as one of her biggest influences, a sentiment that echoes through lives of other women in politics such as Elizabeth Warren whose mother single-handedly got her family out of bankruptcy and Hillary Clinton whose mother insisted that she have an “independent, professional career.”
Trailblazers like Ferraro have paved the way for politicians like Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris who remain the only other women in U.S. history on the Democratic ticket. While a woman has yet to smash the proverbial glass ceiling, cracks are beginning to emerge. As Aaron describes, “I think I was inspired to write this play out of my own personal sense of regret for the country because Gerry didn’t get to be vice president. I really think that women will bring something positive to the highest level of leadership in this country. And I feel sad that we haven’t gotten there yet.” Hailing from a family of artists and drawing from her roots as a writer and an actor, Aaron is steadfast in her faith in storytelling as an essential part of life. “Seeing theater, reading stories, or watching movies may be entertaining, but at the same time, it can also provide healing, and that's the possibility I'm most passionate about.”
3GT Playwright Elizabeth Aaron is an Oakland-based playwright, screenwriter, and actor whose mission is to bring stories to life that the world needs to hear. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Mills College, and has studied acting at the Waterfront Playhouse and Conservatory and the Yat/Bentley Centre for Performance. She is grateful to all artists for their inspiration and to 3Girls Theatre Company for their unwavering support of women and the arts. http://www.elizabethaaronactor.com
Hannah Meyer, 3GT’s Marketing Associate, is a director and dramaturg of new work with a background in marketing and public relations. In the Bay Area, she has worked with Magic Theatre, Playwrights Foundation, and SF Playhouse. Hannah is also a writer whose work has appeared in Points in Case, The Well Mannered Grump, The Baram House, The Haven and elsewhere. Her essay, which explores the politics of comedy in Rachel Bloom's banned song, "Period Sex," will be published later this year with Taylor & Francis. Hannah is passionate about the intersections between art, activism, and scholarship.