MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now that Christine Blasey Ford has agreed to testify, we thought this would be a good time to take a step back to 1992, one year before Anita Hill had testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the then-nominee for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her. In the U.S. election that followed, a record number of women were swept to victory in what became known as the year of the woman. Four new women senators were elected as part of that wave, tripling the number in that chamber. Twenty four women were elected to the House of Representatives.
So the question we wanted to answer is if this moment will herald a similar change. Joining us now is Ruth Mandel. She is co-founder of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Ruth Mandel, welcome to the program.
RUTH MANDEL: Hi, how are you? Well, thank you very much.
BLOCK: Of course. What do you think about that framing of 1992 as the year of the woman in electoral politics?
MANDEL: If it suggests that one year is going to turn everything around, then we consider it misleading. Women have become interested in moving into political leadership in small numbers incrementally, with encouragement, with a movement pushing them on over time. And in 1991, as a result of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation, something happened that helped the numbers in the House to jump forward. But it wasn't the only thing that happened that year that made that difference. And now, with a very long period between '91 and now, there is a different climate, and so we think the jump is going to be bigger and more significant. But it is still part of a long process going forward.
BLOCK: I was looking at a comment that one of the two women in the Senate before the 1992 election, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, said. She said calling 1992 the year of the woman makes it sound like the year of the caribou or the year of the asparagus.
MANDEL: Right (laughter). And I think Bella Abzug used to say, we don't want a year. We want the whole thing.
BLOCK: When that record number of women was elected to Congress back in 1992, did it have an effect legislatively? Were there policy effects?
MANDEL: No, not in a major way because while (laughter) we had gone from single digits for many years to what we call the teenage years, and now we were in double digits, nonetheless, the movement forward in numbers in the U.S. House was very slow. And, again, the critical word is incremental. Certainly, the Democrats had an agenda of progressive change for women - equal pay issues, child care issues, health care issues - so a whole range of domestic policy issues, mostly domestic policy issues that affected everyday life for women and families.
BLOCK: Let's pitch forward to the present day. We have seen women in 2018 win a record number of congressional primaries - same goes for state level races, too. Do you see this year as a turning point?
MANDEL: I see the atmosphere in which they're winning as entirely different from anything we've seen before, and that has to do with the presidential administration and the anger in the country reflecting itself in all kinds of areas. But my point is, do I see anything different? Yes. I mean, it's the #MeToo, it's the Women's March. So this is a different climate. Anita Hill was one individual who came forward and shocked the nation with some language and a description that had never been part of the consciousness of the country. But it was one person, and she was seen as being victimized, essentially.
BLOCK: We've been looking through some campaign ads from the current cycle. These are women who are running now. Here's one from Mary Barzee Flores. She's a Democrat from Florida, and she's running for the House.
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MARY BARZEE FLORES: As a woman who has worked since I was 15 years old, I've dealt with handsy customers, with harassment and even assault from a boss - and as a lawyer, with a judge who made a crack about my looks on my very first day in court.
BLOCK: And here's another ad. This one is from Republican Congresswoman Barbara Comstock. She's running for re-election in Virginia.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I sent Barbara to Congress to empower women and fight sexual harassment, and she does.
BLOCK: Ruth Mandel, it's interesting to see this being taken on so explicitly in these ads by women candidates.
MANDEL: It's absolutely fascinating. Back in the '70s, it was kind of shocking to hear a woman's voice not running for office but narrating an ad. And, for years, we talked about that as, you know, a way in which the male candidates were appealing - were trying to appeal to women voters.
Now it's not just a question of candidates speaking on their own behalf, and they are women's voices. But the issues that they're talking about, the things that they're willing to discuss - including, of course, we've seen that among the women in Congress, too - it's a totally different world. And I have no idea how this is going to play out, but I can't imagine that women around the country will not respond to this because they've had experiences that speak to the issues that are being raised. It's not as if it's a shocking new issue that has no name.
BLOCK: It also speaks to the power of the women's vote.
MANDEL: Absolutely. It took many years for women to use the franchise. Once they had won the 19th Amendment, it took many years for them to come out in larger and larger and larger numbers. It was incremental, but once that barrier had been crossed, it was women and the gender gap that reelected Bill Clinton in 1996.
I don't know if women ever realized that they had that power, but about 10 million more women vote in national presidential elections for some years now. There's been a gender gap that's been identified since 1980, and I think there's now a recognition on the part of so many more women that they have power in the franchise and that that power can translate into bringing women into leadership positions and into power and in demanding an agenda that reflects their interests. And, of course, we have to say not all women have the same interests...
MANDEL: ...And so we're going to watch. We're going to watch that play out in the years ahead. But I think we have definitely reached a turning point.
BLOCK: That's Ruth Mandel. She's the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and co-founder of the Center for American Women and Politics.
Ruth Mandel, thanks so much for talking with us.
MANDEL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.