November 3, 1992
The hotly contested 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas troubled many American women. Televised images of a committee, composed exclusively of white males, sharply questioning an opposing witness—African-American law professor Anita Hill—caused many to wonder where the women senators were.
In 1991 the Senate included two women members, but neither Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas nor Barbara Mikulski of Maryland served on the Judiciary Committee. Watching the hearings on the West Coast, Washington State senate member Patty Murray asked herself, “Who’s saying what I would say if I was there?” Later, at a neighborhood party, as others expressed similar frustrations, Murray spontaneously announced to the group, “You know what? I'm going to run for the Senate.”
While Murray set out to raise the necessary funds, two other women several hundred miles to the south in California began work on their own Senate campaigns. As a result of their activity, on January 3, 1993, for the first time in American history, California became the first state in the nation to be represented in the Senate by two women. In the 1992 elections, Dianne Feinstein, a former Democratic mayor of San Francisco, running for the balance of an uncompleted term, trounced her opponent with a margin of nearly two million votes. Barbara Boxer—a 10-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives who had joined six of her Democratic women colleagues in a march on the Senate to urge greater attention to Anita Hill’s charges—solidly won a full term for that state’s other seat.
A week after the election, a front-page Washington Post photograph told the story. Standing with exultant Democratic Majority Leader George Mitchell were not only Feinstein and Boxer, but also Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington. Never before had four women been elected to the Senate in a single election year.
Headline-writers hailed “The Year of the Woman.” To this, Senator Mikulski responded, “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.”
Over the following decade, as the number of women members more than doubled, the novelty of women senators—as Mikulski predicted—began to fade.