On Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford could testify in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee strikingly similar to the one that questioned Anita Hill in 1991 about her allegations against the then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
In July of 1992, one year after the Thomas-Hill hearings, the Atlantic contributor Wendy Kaminer asked how the the hearings might change U.S. politics: Would more women run for office? Would issues related to women and gender be handled differently in the future?
We asked two experts on women in contemporary U.S. politics to read Kaminer’s piece and weigh in on what’s changed since 1992—and what hasn’t.
The Problem With the Thomas-Hill Hearings
In her 1992 piece, “Crashing the Locker Room,” Wendy Kaminer discussed how the Thomas-Hill hearings were seen, and understood, that year. Here’s Kaminer:
That the Senate is indifferent to women's voices and concerns is the kindest interpretation of the Thomas-Hill hearings offered by many women. Male senators tended to ignore or trivialize the charges of sexual harassment because, Bella Abzug, the former New York congresswoman, asserts, “they do it all the time.” Abzug echoes a common refrain. “It's a way of life for them.” Ellie Smeal, the founder of The Fund for the Feminist Majority, is blunter, recalling what a male lobbyist once told her about male legislators: “They fish together, they hunt together, they play cards together, and they whore together.”
Whether or not outrage over the Thomas-Hill hearings is confined to politically active professional women, as some claim, whether or not that outrage will affect the upcoming election (it has already cost Alan Dixon, an Illinois Democrat who voted for Thomas, his seat, and may defeat Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, as well), whether or not the public had its collective consciousness raised by Hill's story and the commentaries it engendered, the televised hearings provided an emotionally charged image of the Senate as an exclusive club for white males of a certain age. The committee looked like an aging former football team from some segregated suburban school.
Crashing the Locker Room: 1992 and Today
While we couldn’t reach Wendy Kaminer, we spoke with Jennifer Lawless, a professor of women and politics at the University of Virginia, and Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. They helped us answer a few of the forward-pointing questions Kaminer poses in her 1992 piece.
In 1992: There were only two female senators when Kaminer’s story was published: Nancy Kassebaum from Kansas and Barbara Mikulski from Maryland. Both were invited to sit with the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Thomas-Hill hearings, but both turned down the offer, partially over concerns that their participation would amount to a whitewash of the proceedings. This left America with the image of two dozen white men grilling a young black woman about sexual harassment.
Kaminer’s question: Would the spectacle of the hearings bring more women to Congress and stoke lasting political change?
Today: Yes and no. More women ran for Congress in the 1992 election—and won—than ever before. Four additional women joined the U.S. Senate that year, a spike that prompted many to label 1992 “The Year of the Woman.” The optics of the Thomas-Hill hearings contributed, at least in part, to that increase, as a few of the new female senators, including Patty Murray, a U.S. senator from Washington, attested. “It did motivate a lot of Democratic women to throw their hats into the ring, and Democratic women’s numbers have been steadily increasing since then,” Lawless said. Republicans, however, were far slower to elect women to the Senate. In 1993, 40 of the 54 women in Congress were Democrats. Today, 70 percent of women in Congress are still Democrats.
In 1992: Washington felt like a men’s locker room, Kaminer wrote. Both parties recruited candidates to run for office by pulling primarily from the most visible and well-connected circles, which consisted almost exclusively of white men. The parties also used their influence to sway primary elections, “clearing the field” for party favorites—again, almost always men. The structure and influence of the Republican party made it extremely difficult for female candidates to succeed.
Kaminer’s question: Will the parties better support women in the future?
Today: Yes, both parties are far more supportive of female candidates than they were in 1992. But primaries still pose a challenge, especially for Republican women, said the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Democrats are nominating women in record numbers this election cycle, but Republicans have really lagged behind.” This year, in Democratic primaries where a woman ran against a man, Lake said, the woman won 71 percent of the time. In similar Republican primaries, the woman won only 35 percent of the time. “Unless the Republicans hone in on identifying, recruiting, and supporting women to run,” Lawless said, “I don’t know how we get out of this.”
In 1992: People wondered whether the Thomas-Hill hearings would increase female solidarity across party lines, with Democratic and Republican women finding more in common with each other than with their male colleagues. If there had been more women in the Senate, some political analysts speculated, perhaps Thomas would not have been nominated at all.
Kaminer’s question: Does gender trump partisanship?
Today: As one of the very few women in a position to impact the outcome of the Kavanaugh proceedings, the Republican senator Susan Collins is under enormous pressure. Does she vote with her party and secure its support in upcoming elections, or does she side with a broader bipartisan coalition of women who are pushing her to stand up for alleged victims of sexual assault, and risk the party’s ire?
Lake said that a vote for Kavanaugh could alienate the coalition of voters—many of them Democratic or independent women—who elected Collins to office in a landslide in 2014. But “it’s silly to expect that women are going to value partisanship and party loyalty any less than men when that’s the premium of exchange in Congress,” Lawless said. “If you’re party-loyal, you climb the ranks.” In other words, to ascend further in the Republican Party, Collins might need to vote for Kavanaugh.
In 1992: The all-male Thomas-Hill hearings stoked fury among voters who were concerned about gender representation. Kaminer pointed out that the hearings could empower voters to rally around a call for more women lawmakers, or it could discourage them from voting altogether. “Combined with fury over reversals of abortion rights, anger at the Thomas-Hill hearings may prove to have considerable political potency,” Kaminer wrote.
Kaminer’s question: Would voters mobilize for female candidates in the next election or stay home?
Today: There are more women in Congress today than there were in 1992, but progress has become slow. Lake and Lawless agreed that women—both candidates and voters—seem to be highly energized on the Democratic side. But Lawless said that it will be hard to sustain that level of momentum, just as it was twenty-five years ago. There’s also the fact that there are fewer Republican women than Democratic women running for office. It remains harder for women to get elected at the state level than it is for men. And as was the case in 1992, the biggest supporters of women today continue to be other women, especially progressive and college-educated women.
And this very conversation about how the hearings could affect female candidates might not necessarily play to the advantage of women. “When women’s political fortunes are dependent on the political environment, it’s dangerous,” said Lawless.
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