Ferraro's run also was beset by ethical questions, first about her campaign finances and tax returns, then about the business dealings of her husband, real estate developer John Zaccaro. Ferraro attributed much of the controversy to bias against Italian-Americans.
Zaccaro pleaded guilty in 1985 to a misdemeanor charge of scheming to defraud in connection with obtaining financing for the purchase of five apartment buildings. Two years later, he was acquitted of trying to extort a bribe from a cable television company.
Ferraro's son, John Zaccaro Jr., was convicted in 1988 of selling cocaine to an undercover Vermont state trooper and served three months under house arrest.
Some observers said the legal troubles were a drag on Ferraro's later political ambitions, which included her unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in New York in 1992 and 1998.
Ferraro, a supporter of Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, was back in the news in March 2008 when she stirred up a controversy by appearing to suggest that Sen. Barack Obama achieved his status in the presidential race only because he is black.
She later stepped down from an honorary post in the Clinton campaign, but insisted she meant no slight against Obama.
In a statement, Obama praised Ferraro as a trailblazer who had made the world better for his daughters.
"Sasha and Malia will grow up in a more equal America because of the life Geraldine Ferraro chose to live," Obama said.
Ferraro received a law degree from Fordham University in 1960, the same year she married and became a full-time homemaker and mother. She said she kept her maiden name to honor her mother, a widow who had worked long hours as a seamstress.
After years in a private law practice, she took a job as an assistant Queens district attorney in 1974. She headed the office's special victims' bureau, which prosecuted sex crimes and the abuse of children and the elderly. In 1978, she won the first of three terms in Congress representing a blue-collar district of Queens.