In 1991, Anita Hill became a household name. After President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Hill accused Thomas of sexually harassing her while they worked together at the U.S. Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When a private report of her allegations leaked to the press, the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Hill to publicly testify before it.
Grilled by the all-male panel of senators, Hill recounted details of Thomas’ sexual vulgarity and advances toward her in the workplace. Despite offers from other women to testify in support of Hill’s claims, the chair of the committee at the time, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), decided not to call these additional witnesses, elevating the hearings into a he-said, she-said soap opera.
Even after Hill submitted to a polygraph test, which verified that she was telling the truth, the Senate voted, 52-48, to confirm Thomas as the newest member of the Supreme Court. With concerns about Hill’s credibility and motives, the majority of the chamber could not be convinced that her accusations were enough to derail Thomas’ appointment.
Although Hill’s testimony did not prevent Thomas from sitting on the bench, the controversy did introduce a question: Where were the women? At the time of the Thomas hearings, only 32 women held seats in both chambers of Congress. Capitol Hill was a male-dominated domain.
Women across the country reacted to the hearings with outrage. Noting the harsh criticism Hill received and the relative silence of female voices in Congress, many women were moved to act. More women decided to run for political office than ever before, and 28 new women were elected to Congress, leading 1992 to be proclaimed “the year of the woman.”
The parallels between that period and today are striking. Just as Hill’s testimony in 1991 prompteddialogue about women’s presence in Washington, Sandra Fluke (LAW ’12) reignited this debate earlier this year. After being invited to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the importance of birth control coverage, Fluke was denied participation by Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on the basis that she was not an expert on the subject. Her absence left an all-male panel to discuss the issue of contraception.
The panel that dismissed Fluke’s testimony demonstrated that female voices on the Hill remain limited. While more women serve in Congress today than did during the Thomas hearings, they still account for only 17 percent of membership. As a result, issues unique to women, such as birth control and abortion, are being debated with limited consideration for the female perspective. As occurred after Hill’s testimony, women today have recognized this challenge to their well-being and refuse to remain silent.
There are a total of 181 Democratic and Republican women competing for seats in Congress this year. It would be a big step if even half of these women were elected in November, and although the resulting Congress would still be a far cry from a reflection of the proportion of females in the national population, increasing women’s presence is beneficial for influencing the national agenda.
Christopher Berry and Sarah Anzia authored a 2011 study titled “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?” In an analysis of congressional activity between 1984 and 2004, Berry and Anzia found that congresswomen sponsored and co-sponsored more legislation than their male colleagues and won an average of $49 million more per year for their districts.
The fact that women are far outnumbered in politics explains this paradox in effectiveness. Those who are elected to office feel the need to prove themselves and thus put a great deal of effort into their work. They are also more inclined to collaborate and compromise, preferring negotiations to find a solution rather than back-and-forth debates with no progress.
At a time when the national approval rating for Congress is at an all-time low, women have the ability to transcend this negative trend. But in order for this to happen, voters must make this “the year of the woman 2.0.”
Bethany Imondi is a senior in the College. She is president of GU Women in Politics and is a contributing editor for THE HOYA.