The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No women served on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. The ugly Anita Hill hearings changed that.

In 1992, the election of several women to the Senate made history. Among the women in the chamber were, clockwise from top left, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.). (Senate Historical Office) (United States Senate Historical Office)

In 1991, Patty Murray sat in her living room watching Anita Hill testify during the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Murray, then a Washington state senator, was appalled by what she saw — an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee hurling insensitive questions at Hill about Thomas’s alleged sexual harassment.

“You testified this morning,” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said, “that the most embarrassing question involved — this is not too bad — women’s large breasts. That is a word we use all the time. That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you.”

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Like millions of other women across the country, Murray wondered how Hill would have been treated if there were women on the Judiciary Committee. Later, at a neighborhood party, there was only one subject women wanted to talk about: Hill’s treatment by all those men.

“You know what?” Murray said, according to “Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate,” “I’m going to run for the Senate.”

She won. In Illinois, so did Carol Moseley Braun. And in California, so did Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, now the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and the recipient of a letter from Christine Blasey Ford, a professor in California, alleging sexual assault by current Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh when they were teenagers in Maryland.

With a hearing looming next week at which Kavanaugh and Ford will testify, memories and images of the Thomas hearings have resurfaced: Hill being escorted to the Capitol by police, senators fumbling over adjectives describing male and female anatomy, Thomas’s fierce denials.

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) questions law professor Anita Hill during a confirmation hearing on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. (Video: C-SPAN)

But there is a stark generational difference.

In 2018, Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify in the context of the #MeToo movement.

In 1991, there wasn't even a women's restroom near the Senate chamber.

Thomas was confirmed, but the hearings spurred what became known as the “Year of the Woman."

In the Senate, Murray, Moseley Braun and Feinstein joined Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland. Kay Bailey Hutchison wasn’t far behind, winning a special election in Texas. Twenty-four women were elected to the House. Female candidates were swept into local and state offices.

And history could repeat itself in November, with a record number of women on ballots.

A record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives in 2018. The Washington Post spent time with some of them on the campaign trail. (Video: Alice Li, Sarah Hashemi, Kayla Epstein/The Washington Post)

While then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) appointed Feinstein and Mosley Braun to the Judiciary Committee, the men of the Senate weren’t overly welcoming of their new female colleagues, according to Jay Newton-Small’s book “Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works.”

"Women were kept out of certain caucuses and rooms," Newton-Small wrote. "When they spoke on the Senate floor, male senators often interrupted, claiming they lacked knowledge or experience about issues."

Newton-Small recounted how Feinstein, who became a fierce opponent of the gun industry, faced fierce pushback on the Senate floor during a debate on banning assault weapons. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said: “The senator from California, in her remarks tonight, I must say, was somewhat typical of those who study the issue for the first time. The senator from California needs to become a little more familiar with firearms and their deadly characteristics.”

Feinstein, who witnessed her colleague Harvey Milk's assassination in the offices of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, unloaded on Craig.

“They found my assassinated colleague, and you could put a finger through the bullet hole,” she said. “I proposed gun-control legislation in San Francisco. I went through a recall on the basis of it."

And after the windows were shot out at her house, she learned how to fire a gun.

“Senator,” she said, "I know something about what firearms do.”

Craig retreated.

Despite the chauvinism they encountered, the newly elected women in Congress made great gains, particularly in equal pay, increased federal research for women’s health, and legislation that protected families and children. And they helped humanize the issues facing everyday Americans, Newton-Small wrote:

During [Murray’s] first year in office, the Senate was debating the Family Medical Leave Act, a bill that the women had pushed aggressively. Murray took to the floor and spoke about how a dear friend had been forced to quit her job to take care of her dying son, nearly bankrupting her family. On her way out of the chamber, an older male senator stopped her. “We don’t tell personal stories here,” he admonished. Murray said that she had every intention of telling personal stories on the Senate floor. “Years later he apologized and thanked me,” she recalled. “He realized that highlighting the real impact, that’s how we help people understand what we’re doing.”

A year later, women got a bathroom near the Senate floor — two stalls. With 23 women now serving in the Senate, it has since been expanded. But even when there were just two toilets as their ranks grew, the New York Times noted that the female senators “learned to use the situation to their advantage.”

While waiting in line, they negotiated.

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