In the fall of 1991, Law Professor Anita Hill testified before the then-all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. She said that when she had worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Thomas’s supervision, he had subjected her to unwelcome sexual harassment. In response, Hill faced a barrage of harsh criticism: after this testimony, in fact, she had few defenders on the committee, even among the Democrats, and one man, writer David Brock, went so far as to charge that she was “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” But while she failed to derail Thomas’s confirmation, and national polls indicated that many people didn’t believe her, her treatment outraged women around the country. The following year, 1992, saw so many women running for office that it was nicknamed “The Year of the Woman.” A high priority was to get more women into the Senate so that an important committee such as Judiciary would no longer be all-male.
More than 20 years have passed since that historic event, and therefore it’s a good time to assess where women stand in Congress. How has the composition of our legislative branch changed? In the 102nd Congress, elected in 1990, four women served in the Senate and 28 in the House. The next election cycle, following Anita Hill, brought significant change. The 103rd Congress included seven women senators and 47 women in the House. And by the time of the 113th Congress, chosen in 2012, 20 women were elected to the Senate and 79 to the House. What these figures reveal is a situation that is still far from the goal of complete parity, but that nonetheless represents the presence of enough women to form an effective bloc, especially since the women overwhelmingly belong to the Democratic Party and thus have relatively few partisan differences. (Before the election of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party endorsed certain pieces of pro-woman legislation, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the partisan balance among women in Congress tended to be much less skewed than it is now. And, of course, the gender gap, whereby women began to vote much more strongly for Democrats than did men, famously emerged for the first time in 1980, the year of Reagan’s first election.)
What difference has the greater number of women in Congress made? One gauge of this is to look at the career of Nancy Kassebaum Baker, Republican of Kansas, who served three terms in the Senate. First elected in 1978, she was the only woman in the Senate in the 96th Congress. Moreover, she hadn’t followed her husband into Congress, then the usual route for a woman, which makes her even more of a path-breaking figure. But her father, Alf Landon, had been governor of Kansas and the Republican presidential nominee in 1936. I spoke with Kassebaum in July of 1991, and she described the lack of respect given to female legislators at that time. Although she was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she was rarely, if ever, invited to appear on television as a foreign policy expert, and there were times when she felt condescended to.
Since that interview, a crucial change has taken place. As of fall 2014, the Democratic leader of the House is a woman, Nancy Pelosi, and she was briefly the Speaker. Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Women senators and congresspeople are often seen as talking heads on television, usually deploying their expertise to great effect. No progressive senator of either gender has a higher profile than Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts. Women senators have frequently championed legislation to benefit other women. And finally, there have been enough women in the Senate in the last 20 years to enable political scientists to conduct statistical analyses of their votes, of the bills they have introduced, and of their leadership. All of this represents tremendous change. And let’s not forget that Hillary Rodham Clinton is the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency, should she choose to run.
Does this mean that everything is perfect for women officeholders? Hardly! To cite just one example of the problems a woman might encounter, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has recently published a book in which she details some of the sexist remarks directed her way by male colleagues. Difficult though it might be to believe, an elderly fellow senator cautioned her against losing too much weight, because he “likes my girls chubby.” And this is just one instance. Many challenges remain, not the least of which is to get more women to run for office at every level. There are, of course, broader issues too, such as the increasing role of money in elections, particularly after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. But we can safely conclude that Anita Hill’s testimony and subsequent treatment helped to trigger great change in the power structure of American democracy—change which continues to drive politics to this day. Looking back, the words “watershed moment” don’t seem out of place.