The Decade of Women, 1992–2002 

On election Tuesday 1992, American voters sent as many new women to Congress as were elected in any previous decade, beginning a decade of unparalleled gains for women in Congress. In November 2002, women attained another historic milestone when the House Democratic Caucus elected 15-year veteran Nancy Pelosi of California as Democratic Leader—making her the highest ranking woman in congressional history.

Expectations for a “breakthrough” year for women had been high since the late 1970s; in fact, 1984 had been hopefully, but prematurely, advertised as the “Year of the Woman.” Political observers discussed the rise of a “gender gap,” predicting that 6 million more women than men would vote in the 1984 elections.30 When Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York was chosen as the Democratic candidate for Vice President that year—the first woman to appear on a major party ticket—expectations soared for a strong turnout by women at the polls. Jan Meyers of Kansas, one of a group of women running for national office in 1984, credited Ferraro’s high profile with having “a very positive impact” on her campaign in suburban Kansas City for a House seat. Ferraro put women in the headlines, increased their credibility, and forced the Republican Party to focus on women voters, Meyers said shortly after winning a seat in Congress.31 Some expected women to vote as a bloc on the hot-button issues that were important to them—reproductive rights, economic equality, and health care; the emergence of a women’s voting bloc had been predicted since the passage of the 19th Amendment. But this bloc failed to materialize in 1984, and Ferraro and Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale of Minnesota lost in a landslide to the incumbent President Reagan.

In 1992, women went to the polls, energized by a record-breaking number of women on the federal ticket. The results were unprecedented; the 24 women who won election to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time that November comprised the largest number elected to the House in any single election, and the women elected to the Senate tripled the number of women in that chamber.32 Dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” 1992 also marked the beginning of a decade of remarkable gains for minority women. Twenty-three of the 34 African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-Pacific-American women who have served in Congress were elected between 1992 and 2005.

California’s 1992 congressional races were a microcosm of the changes beginning to take place nationally. During the 102nd Congress, from 1991 to 1993, women held three seats on the California congressional delegation—roughly 6 percent. In 1992, a record 71 California women were nominated to run in the fall elections for federal and state offices; nationally 11 women won major party nominations for Senate races, while 106 women contended for House seats in the general election.33 “The days of cold lonely fights of the ’60s and ’70s, when women were often laughed at as we tried to push for new opportunities, are over,” said Lynn Schenk, a congressional candidate from San Diego. “No one’s laughing now. If people truly want someone to be an agent of change, I’m that person. And being a woman is part of that.”34 Six new women Members from California, including Schenk, were elected to the House in the fall of 1992 alone. Two others, Representative Barbara Boxer and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, won election as U.S. Senators, making California the first state with two women in the Senate. By the 109th Congress in 2005, 21 members of the California congressional delegation were women—38 percent of the state’s total representation in Congress.

Women’s impressive gains in 1992 were not the product of any one galvanizing event, but rather the confluence of several long-term trends and short-term election year issues. Demographics, global politics, scandal, and the ripple effect of the women’s liberation movement all played a part in the results of that historic election.

In 1992, the incumbent candidates faced a tougher-than-usual contest for re-election. An economic downturn that had begun in 1991 was predicted to be the leading edge of a long-term recession. American business mired as the country transitioned to a peace-time economy after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The national focus shifted from the Soviet–American conflict and national security to areas where women’s influence was more established—education, health care, welfare reform, and the economy. While Americans worried about their jobs, they watched apprehensively the resurgent Japanese economy and the reunification of Germany. The check-writing scandal in the House “bank” (operated by the Sergeant at Arms), where a large number of Representatives had overdrawn their accounts—in some cases on hundreds of occasions—also contributed to the anti-incumbent sentiment within the electorate that disdained business-as-usual politics in Washington. Moreover, the debate over the abortion issue had reached a divisive point, with a pro-life President in the White House and the Supreme Court considering a ruling that could have reversed Roe v. Wade.

The issue of whom President George H. W. Bush’s administration would appoint to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall became a galvanizing one for women candidates. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a conservative he had earlier appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Thomas’s antiabortion stance, as well as his opposition to affirmative action, made him a lightning rod for liberal groups and Democratic Senators. But his confirmation hearings became a public forum on sexual harassment in the workplace when Thomas’s former aide Anita Hill accused him in televised hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee of making unwanted advances. Beamed into millions of homes, the spectacle of the all-male Judiciary Committee offering Hill little sympathy and at moments treating her with outright hostility reinforced the perception that women’s perspectives received short shrift on Capitol Hill. Seven Democratic women from the House marched in protest to address the caucus of their Democratic Senate colleagues, but they were rebuffed.

While controversy stirred by the Thomas–Hill episode provided good campaign rhetoric and a convenient media explanation for the “Year of the Woman,” other contributing factors included the availability of funding, the growing pool of women candidates with elective experience, and the presence of a Democratic presidential candidate, who shared their beliefs on many of the issues (24 of the 27 women elected that fall were Democrats). Also significant were the effects of redistricting after the 1990 Census, the large number of retiring Members, and the casualties of the House banking scandal; the combination of these effects created 93 open seats in the U.S. House during the 1992 elections.35 Candidates of both genders embraced the popular theme of change in government by stressing their credentials as Washington outsiders, but women benefited more from this perception, because they had long been marginalized in the Washington political process. As Elizabeth Furse, a successful candidate for an Oregon House seat, pointed out during her campaign: “People see women as agents of change. Women are seen as outsiders, outside the good old boy network which people are perceiving has caused so many of the economic problems we see today.”36

For all the media attention paid to the “Year of the Woman,” it was but a part of the larger trend of women’s movement into elective office. A number of women expressed exasperation with the media focus that hyped the sensational news story but largely ignored more enduring trends and influences. “The year of the woman in retrospect was a small gain, but it was the start of what was a big gain,” Senator Barbara Boxer observed a decade later. “I don’t even think it was the year of the woman then, but it started the trend of electing more women.”37 Others felt the label diminished women’s achievement and reinforced perceptions that their impact on Congress was temporary. As Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said: “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”38

The trend that culminated in the 1990s had begun decades earlier in the state legislatures, where women began to accumulate political experience that prepared them to be legislators. The first Congresswoman with elective experience in a state legislature was Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy of Kansas. For decades McCarthy proved the exception to the rule; between her election to Congress in 1932 and 1970, when greater numbers of women began to serve in state capitols, hardly more than a dozen Congresswomen had held a seat in the state legislature or a statewide elective office. It was only in the last 30 years of the 20th century that women made significant gains in state legislatures and, subsequently, the U.S. Congress. For example, in 1970 women held about four percent (301 seats) of all the seats in state legislatures nationwide. In 1997 that figure plateaued at around 1,600, and for the next five years women made up about 22 percent of state legislators nationally. In 2003, 1,648 (22.3 percent) of the 7,382 state legislators in the United States were women.39

Ultimately, however, the “Year of the Woman” spawned expectations that women candidates in subsequent elections could not realistically meet. Contrary to widely held beliefs, women were not about to change the political culture overnight—especially not on seniority-based Capitol Hill. Later political battles over issues such as reproductive rights, welfare reform, and the federal deficit dashed hopes that women would unite across party lines, subordinate ideology to pragmatism, and increase their power.

Moreover, the belief that sexism would be eradicated proved overly optimistic, as old stereotypes persisted. Along with Representatives Barbara Boxer and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio led a 1985 protest of House women demanding equal access to the House gym and fitness facilities. Unhappy that the women’s gym lacked the modern exercise equipment, swimming pool, and basketball court accessible to the male Members, the three lawmakers made their pitch in a song belted out to the tune of “Has Anyone Seen My Gal?” before a meeting of the House Democratic Whips.40 However, women still contended with unequal access to gym facilities and other indications of sexism.41 Once when fellow freshman Leslie Byrne of Virginia entered an elevator full of Members, a Congressman remarked, “It sure is nice to have you ladies here. It spiffs up the place.” Exasperated, Byrne quipped, “Yup, chicks in Congress.”42 Another Member of the class of ’92 observed that Congress had failed to keep pace with changes in American society. “Out in the real world, we took care of a lot of these basic issues between men and women years ago,” said Lynn Schenk. “But this place has been so insulated, the shock waves of the ’70s and ’80s haven’t quite made it through the walls.”43

After the 1992 elections, women Members were still in a distinct minority, although for the first time in congressional history they accounted for more than 10 percent of the total membership. Subsequent growth was slower, though steady. On average since 1992, 10 new women have been elected to Congress each election cycle, while incumbency rates have remained well above 90 percent. In August 2005, women made up 15.5 percent of Congress—an all-time high. Some women noted that although they had failed to achieve numerical parity in Congress, they had dramatically altered the political culture within the electorate. “In previous years, when I have run for office, I always had to overcome being a woman,” said Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. “All I’ve ever wanted was an equal chance to make my case, and I think we’re getting to that point—and that’s the victory.”44

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Footnotes

30See, for example, Jane Perlez, “Women, Power, and Politics,” 24 June 1984, New York Times: SM22.

31Bill Peterson, “Reagan Did Understand Women: While Democrats Slept, the GOP Skillfully Captured Their Votes,” 3 March 1985, Washington Post: C5.

32Twenty-four women had been elected to the House in the decade running from 1980 to 1989; 23 were elected between 1970 and 1979.

33Susan Yoachum and Robert B. Gunnison, “Women Candidates Win Record 71 Nominations,” 4 June 1992, San Francisco Chronicle: A1; Jackie Koszczuk, “Year of the Woman? Political Myth Fades,” 18 October 1992, Wisconsin State Journal: 1E. Heading into the primaries in 1992 an unprecedented 37 California women were candidates for U.S. House and Senate seats (as well as an equally exceptional number of 127 for the California Assembly); these numbers reflected the larger national trend, where 157 women were running in the Democratic and Republican primaries for the U.S. House (140) and the Senate (17). Previously, the largest number of women contenders was 10 for Senate seats (1984) and 70 for House seats (1990).

34Barry M. Horstman, “San Diego County Elections; Women Flex Muscles in County Races,” 4 June 1992, Los Angeles Times: B1.

35Adam Clymer, “In 2002, Woman’s Place May Be in the Statehouse,” 15 April 2002, New York Times: A1.

36Trueheart, “Politics’ New Wave of Women; With Voters Ready for a Change, Candidates Make Their Move.”

37Lauren Whittington, “Women See Gains Slowing: Number of Female Lawmakers Not Expected to Rise Dramatically,” 19 September 2002, Roll Call: 13, 20.

38Barbara Mikulski et al. Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate (New York: Morrow, 2000): 46—50.

39See “Women in State Legislatures 2001,” (December 2001) and “Women in Elective Office 2002,” (June 2002), Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu. Of the top 10 states with the highest percentages of women legislators in 2003, seven were western states: Washington (36.7 percent), Colorado (34 percent), Oregon (31.1 percent), California (30 percent), New Mexico (29.5 percent), and Nevada (28.6 percent). Four eastern states round out the list: Maryland (33 percent), Vermont (30.6 percent), Connecticut (29.4 percent), and Delaware (29 percent).

40Marjorie Hunter, “A Woman’s Place, They Say, Is in the Gym,” 16 June 1985, New York Times: 40.

41Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough.”

42Rich Heidorn, “Capitol Offense: No Longer Darlings, Congress’ Women Look Ahead,” Chicago Tribune, 16 October 1994: Woman News, 5.

43Karen Ball, “Congressional Women: Wave of Change Never Made It Through Capitol Walls,” 7 September 1993, Associated Press.

44Whittington, “Women See Gains Slowing.”