The Year of the Woman, 1992
On Election Tuesday 1992, American voters elected more new women to Congress than in any previous decade, which began a period of unparalleled advances for women in Congress. 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” and predicted that 6 million more women than men would vote in the 1984 elections.44 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.45 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. While the emergence of a women’s voting bloc had been predicted since the passage of the 19th Amendment, it 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. Nationally, 11 women won major party nominations for Senate races while 106 women contended for House seats in the general election.46 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 by the start of the 103rd Congress.47 Dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” 1992 also marked the beginning of more than 20 years of remarkable achievements for minority women. Forty-seven of the 58 African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-Pacific-American women who have served in Congress were elected between 1992 and 2016.
California’s 1992 congressional races were a microcosm of the changes beginning to take place nationally. During the 102nd Congress (1991–1993), there were three women in 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.48 “The days of the 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 congressional candidate Lynn Schenk. “No one’s laughing now.”49 Five 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 114th Congress in 2016, 21 members of the California congressional delegation were women, 39.6 percent of the state’s total representation in Congress.50
The impressive gains by women 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 peacetime 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 influences were more established and acknowledged: 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, which benefitted many of the women running for Congress (24 of the 27 women elected for the first time 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.51 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 a U.S. House seat for Oregon, 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.”52
44See, for example, Jane Perlez, “Women, Power, and Politics,” 24 June 1984, New York Times: SM22.
45Bill Peterson, “Reagan Did Understand Women: While Democrats Slept, the GOP Skillfully Captured Their Votes,” 3 March 1985, Washington Post: C5.
46There were 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). See, “Fact Sheet: Summary of Women Candidates for Selected Offices,” Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu (accessed 28 September 2016).
47Twenty-four women had been elected to the House in the decade running from 1980 to 1989; 23 were elected between 1970 and 1979. Representative Eva Clayton of North Carolina and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California won special elections on November 3, 1992, to fill vacant seats in the 102nd Congress. Clayton also won election to the full term in the 103rd Congress. Unlike Clayton, the 23 other women elected to the House on November 3, 1992, were not sworn in until the start of the 103rd Congress in early January 1993. In addition to Feinstein, three women were elected to the Senate on November 3, 1992: Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, Patty Murray of Washington, and Barbara Boxer of California. Boxer had been a Member of the House of Representatives since the 98th Congress. By the start of the 103rd Congress, the six women Senators were the most ever in that chamber.
48Susan 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).
49Barry M. Horstman, “San Diego County Elections; Women Flex Muscles in County Races,” 4 June 1992, Los Angeles Times: B1.
50“State Fact Sheet – California,” Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu (accessed 28 September 2016).
51Adam Clymer, “In 2002, Woman’s Place May Be in the Statehouse,” 15 April 2002, New York Times: A1.
52Trueheart, “Politics’ New Wave of Women; With Voters Ready for a Change, Candidates Make Their Move.”