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OpinionColumnistsRita Ciolli

Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro -- 32 years later the gender debate lingers

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush shakes hands with

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush shakes hands with Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro before the beginning of their debate in Philadelphia in 1984. Credit: AP / Gene J. Puskar

Geraldine Ferraro couldn’t seem “bitchy” and had to appear credible as a possible heir to the Oval Office in the 1984 premier telecast of battle of the sexes, political edition.

Ferraro, the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee, was the first woman to run on a national ticket. And her debate with George H. W. Bush, the sitting vice president, running for a second term with Ronald Reagan, was turned into a test of whether women should even attempt to break that glass ceiling.

Days before the debate, Bush’s press secretary said Ferraro risked appearing “bitchy.” It was a description he quickly tried to walk back with this explanation: “What I meant is that essentially she has to come across tonight as not being screechy or scratchy,” said Peter Teeley, who, by the way, is voting for Hillary Clinton in November.

The petite gal from Queens apparently was carrying on her shoulders the cause of all women who would ever seek future elective office. The consensus was that she didn’t let them down.

Gloria Steinem, one of the founding mothers of feminism, on rapid response that night, judged Ferraro “calm and presidential and in command of the facts.”

Isn’t that just what many of Donald Trump’s advisers hope for him tomorrow night, when he debates Clinton — the smartest girl in the class who has a Google search engine in her brain that allows her to quickly retrieve exhaustive answers to policy questions.

So in some sense, we’ve come a long way in those 32 years. The sensible shoes will be on the other feet at the presidential debate at Hofstra University. Trump just has to survive for 90 minutes.

Although overall polling is tight, the female candidate in 2016 consistently bests her male opponent on temperament and being commander-in-chief, and absolutely laps him on the handling of nuclear weapons.

And what was the debate advice Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, offered Clinton the other day? “She has to smile more,” he said. And I fear he is right.

Some of the dislike and distrust for Clinton still stems from sexism. It’s just not as obvious as when Ferraro was offered a wrist corsage at a campaign rally — she refused it. Or when on her first campaign swing with Walter Mondale, she was asked in Mississippi whether she could bake blueberry muffins. We reporters — and most journalists assigned to cover her campaign were women — just laughed at the remark.

Certainly, some of the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton stems from legitimate policy differences, or her evasive answers on the use of a private email server, or her coziness to Wall Street.

And Trump has captured voters who want to take a sledgehammer to the status quo. But there seems to be, among some, a more fundamental reason for why Clinton is just not liked. Does her relentless pursuit of the presidency make her uncomfortably competitive? Is the lust for power still a trait best respected in men? Is there a deeply buried bias against women who don’t come across as nurturing and emotional?

Back in 1984, my debate “press” credential was a cardboard badge with my name in ink, and I strolled into the Philadelphia Civic Center to take an upfront seat. Now, I have a Secret Service-vetted “media” pass with a photo, and it will take me hours to gain entrance to the separate center at Hofstra where the media will view the debate.

But the questions I am raising about whether our society is ready for a female leader are still the same.

Rita Ciolli is Newsday’s editorial page editor.