It is election night, and the year is 2004: the hotel room is crowded with supporters of the presidential nominee. Early returns show the crowd has every reason to be jubilant. At 10 p.m. the nominee, surrounded by Secret Service agents, enters the room and walks across the makeshift platform to claim victory. The applause is thunderous. With her is her family whom she quickly thanks for its support.

Then she turns to an older woman who is standing behind her and pulls her toward the microphone. The woman is wearing bifocals and has white hair, but she is erect and proud. The crowd's applause is deafening. "And most of all," the president-elect says into the microphone, "I want to thank the woman who made this possible: the woman who broke the gender barrier in national politics, Geraldine Ferraro!"

This election has been a watershed in American politics. In less than a year's time, the notion of having a woman on a national ticket has gone from being the wild-eyed fantasy of feminists -- not all of whom were convinced it was a good idea -- to a historic reality. While polls show Ferraro's nomination for vice president has been at best a mixed blessing to her ticket -- her support among women barely outweighed the negative reaction she drew among men -- she nevertheless has opened the way permanently for women to run for the highest offices in the land.

Whether she was the best choice Walter Mondale could have made remains a question. Certainly, the enthusiasm she generated at the Democratic convention in San Francisco gave Mondale reason to think he could win. But the controversy over her finances brought the campaign to a halt, and it never really recovered. With the wisdom of hindsight, perhaps San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein might have been a better choice. Certainly she would not have been the target of elements of the Catholic Church who seized the candidacy of a pro-choice female Catholic to flog the flock on the abortion issue.

That aside, Ferraro's accomplishment has been historic. She proved that a woman could run a tough and grueling campaign -- one that was arguably superior to her opponent's. She handled a 90-minute press conference on her finances that would have left a lesser candidate in tatters. One can only wonder how President Reagan, Vice President Bush or Walter Mondale, for that matter, would have survived.

She and her family stood up under withering personal scrutiny. Everything from her hairdo to her shoes was analyzed. She had to contend with sexual slurs from the opposition, ranging from the president suggesting she was a token to the vice president's press secretary saying she was "too bitchy."

She proved that a woman candidate could handle the debate process, which flawed in format as it may be, has become a fixture of presidential politics. She may not have done a brilliant job, but the measured tone she struck ensures that women in the future will have an easier time of it: there will be less speculation about whether they will come off shrill or pushy, or too deferential and therefore lacking in leadership. Male commentators immediately following the Ferraro-Bush debate gave the vice president the edge, largely on the foreign policy questions. Polls after the debate, however, showed that Ferraro gained in popular appeal, while the vice president plunged. Among the voters, she clearly won.

The scenario that will finally bring a woman into the White House could be anything from a woman vice president moving up because a president is disabled to a woman elected in her own right. Both the Republican and the Democratic parties will feel pressure from within their ranks to put women on the ticket, and both are now freer to tap the best talent in their ranks, not just the best male talent. As Ferraro put it in one of her last speeches of the campaign:

"Every father is diminished when his daughter is denied a fair chance. Every son is a victim when his mother is denied fair pay. And when we lower barriers, open doors, and free women to reach wherever their dreams will take them -- our talents are multiplied and our country is stronger."

Only a year ago, the smart money said neither party would dare put a woman on the ticket. Now, the smart money is going so far as to suggest that neither party would dare not to. Ferraro proved a woman could run a good national campaign. History has been made, and American politics will never be quite the same.