Democrats see 2018 as the Year of the Woman 2.0, thanks to the furor surrounding sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
But there are important differences with 1992, the original Year of the Woman, when four Democrats won election to the U.S. Senate after the televised war between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, who accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment. Kavanaugh has forcefully denied the claims of accuser Christine Blasey Ford, just as Thomas denied Hill’s allegations.
Among the differences between the two episodes: Republicans are actively aiming to dilute the political impact of Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
They plan to have a woman lawyer question Blasey Ford, a clear effort to avoid the negative optics from Hill’s hearing, when the striking image of the all-male committee bearing down on a lone woman stuck with some voters. All 11 committee Republicans today are men, while four the 10 Democrats are women.
The Democratic women who won Senate seats in 1992 — California’s Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun and Washington’s Patty Murray — 13 months after Thomas won confirmation have this advice for female Democrats running for office today: Know that women are behind you, but don’t let the harassment issue completely define your candidacy.
“As a candidate, you can’t exactly play to (those issues) without sounding like you’re pandering. That’s just in the water, that’s in the air. So you get out there and talk about the issues in the campaign,” said Moseley Braun, who defeated a two-term incumbent in the 1992 Democratic primary and went on to win the Senate seat.
“That was my pitch,” she said. “The fact there was this whole army of women out there … just redounded to my benefit.”
“I don’t know any woman who’s running on feminism,” she said. “They’re running on bringing a voice to the very real issues that our country faces, whether it’s health care, whether it’s education.”
Murray has seen signs of women mobilizing the way they did for her 1992 campaign.
“The parallel really is that people are aware today,” she said. “This is the kind of year where people are going out and getting involved.”
Feinstein, now the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and the first woman to serve on the committee, said “it’s very hard to tell” if this will launch more women into political office.
“This thing has to play itself out,” she said. “I think we’ve been at a turning point when it comes to women for a long time now, and I think different events precipitate different points of view. But that doesn’t mean that what’s going to happen here is going to rampantly change anybody’s view.”
Some Democratic women running for Senate are using the assault allegations to attack opponents who support Kavanaugh’s nomination, while others are steering clear of the issue.
Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, is in a tight race with Republican Sen. Dean Heller. Last week, she slammed Heller for describing the controversy swirling around Kavanaugh as a “little hiccup.” Heller later said he was referring to “how poorly the Democrats have handled this process,” rather than the sexual assault allegations themselves.
But Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat fighting for her political life against Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, sidestepped sexual assault altogether when announcing her opposition to Kavanaugh last week.
In North Dakota, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, faces a tough re-election bid against Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who has called the allegations against Kavanaugh “even more absurd” than Hill’s claims about Thomas.
Heitkamp responded by calling Cramer’s comments “disturbing.” She has said Blasey Ford should be given the chance to testify.
“It takes courage for any woman to speak up about sexual assault, and we need to respect Prof. Ford by listening to her and hearing her story,” she said in a statement.
To groups promoting Democratic women, the echoes of the early 1990s are striking.
“Anita Hill was a heroine to women. I remember she came to an event in California and people stood up on their chairs to clap for her,” said Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who worked with both Feinstein and Boxer in 1992.
“It was visceral, and people thought, ‘if there were women on this committee, she would be treated different,’” Spillar said. “Now we have record numbers of women running, because they’ve seen how women are treated.”
Helping women this year from both parties is that women activists have become more adept at mobilizing, uniting and running sophisticated campaigns. Me Too, the movement of women speaking out against sexual assault and harassment, has built a stronger base community of public support among women for Blasey Ford than Hill had before her hearing.
Twenty-three women won their Senate primaries in 2018, including 13 incumbents. The previous record of women winning primaries for Senate seats was 18 in 2012.
In the House, the new record is even more pronounced. There are 239 women who won their primaries to compete for the 435 House seats. Seventy-one are incumbents, with 47 running for open seats and 121 challenging incumbents.
More than half of House seats have a female candidate in the general election for the first time in history. The previous record of women winning primaries for House seats was 167.
A big wild card remains: Whether the issue resonates with voters as strongly as it did in 1992 will depend on the hearing itself, said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Most people won’t be following the communication between Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, just like many don’t remember the process behind the scenes of Hill’s testimony. But they might remember a video clip of her speaking, or of a senator asking an insensitive question.
“People remember the senators making (Hill) recount these incidents of sexual harassment, asking if she was a scorned woman,” said Dittmar. “It’s different to see a letter from a lawyer and see a woman testify about a personal and traumatic experience.”