“Women have been called queens for a long time, but the kingdom given them isn’t worth ruling,” said Louisa May Alcott. The words came before women were given the vote, never mind a seat in the Senate, yet, over forty years later Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer would probably nod her head in agreement. She is one of very few women in the Senate, having been elected to cross the moat and enter the world of Washing politics in the late 20th century.
In Boxer’s autobiography, Strangers in the Senate, she opens with the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment situation, during which she played a principle role in the movement to strike Thomas’ election to the Supreme Court due to allegations that he behaved inappropriately towards his subordinate, Anita Hill. Boxer voiced the words that stood for every woman, “To respect women in this society means you give these charges your attention, and when you are confident about the truth, however long it takes, beyond a reasonable doubt, it will be time to vote.” In other words, just because this man is celebrated and his accuser is a low ranking woman, does not mean women may be cast aside and disregarded. This particular incident highlights some important aspects of Boxer’s character – that she is a champion for women and, more importantly, that she is an organizer. She quickly gathered several of her female colleagues and marched over to the Senate. When denied entrance, she told the person at the door that there were an awful lot of cameras outside and the reporters standing next to them would probably want some answers. The door swung open and the women met with the Majority Leader.
Boxer’s book is a perspective on political life, incorporating the history that made it possible for her and other female colleagues to take an active role in the US government. Her initial bid for election, took place in 1972 and she compares this with 1992 in an attempt to show the gains that were made leading to the 1992 “Year of the Woman” during which a record number of women were elected to positions of power in the government.
The Congress in 1992 was not the all boys club it had previously been. It almost was, but not quite, thanks in part to some important women who paved the way. In 1922, Democrat Rebecca Felton was the first woman elected to the Senate. In fact, Felton was responsible for three firsts – “she was the first woman Senator, she only served for one day, and at the age of 87, she was the oldest person ever to be sworn in.” Felton stood in for the last day of Tom Watson’s term, after he died. During her one full day, she had only one opportunity to speak, which was during role call. She stood proudly and prophesized that there would be more women in the Senate and that though they would be few they would bring patriotism, honesty and value.
It would be ten years before a woman would be able to prove Felton true. Hattie Caraway was the next woman in the Senate, as of December 9, 1931. The next woman, Senator Rose McConnel Long was elected in 1936 and we now had all of two women in the Senate. She was followed by Senator Graves of Alabama, who was appointed by her husband, after he noted, “She has as good a heart and head as anybody.” In 1940 Senator Smith of Maine was elected to take her husband’s place after he died. A notable first was the election of Barbara Mikulski of Maryland in 1986 – the first openly feminist Senator.
Boxer devotes a lot of print to Mikulski, who she views as a mentor. Even though it wasn’t 1972, women were still harangued about how they would be able to serve in office and take care of their families. Mikulski’s wry wit saw her through and gave Boxer an understanding of how to stay sane. In 1983, Boxer gathered Mikulski, Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara Kennelley, Olympia Snow and Claudette Josephson and took over some territory in the House of Representatives.
In her first attempt to run for County Supervisor in 1971, she was riddled with questions about how she would take care of her children, even inquiries as to when she would be able to get her dishes done. But, as was the nature of local government she continued to canvass the neighborhood and got a decent show of support, although ultimately, her first attempt at political office ended in defeat.
When Boxer was elected to the House of Representatives in 1983 she was annoyed to learn that women were not allowed to use the gym. The male members of the House, pointed her to the door of the “Ladies Gym”….luckily for the athletic Boxer, it was equipped with the latest in equipment – five hooded hair dryers and a Ping-Pong table. So, she organized the aforementioned group of women and started an aerobics class, led by her friend. Due to the constraints of the tiny room, they were limited, but the battle for territory waged onward. Boxer waited until her second term in office and found seven sympathetic men to back her cause – to no avail, the ancient “Gym Committee” refused to budge. So, Boxer, took her key from the witty Mikulski and wrote a song to the tune of “Has Anyone Seen My Girl.” The women united, stood in front of their male peers at a Congressional whips meeting. A highlight is as follows:
Where to go/Will you advise
Can’t everybody use your gym?
Equal Rights/We’ll wear tights
Let’s avoid those macho fights
Can’t everybody use your gym?”
The women soon found themselves in the former “men’s gym.”
Boxer’s platform was not limited to exercise, she was fully committed to the Domestic Agenda. She includes under this umbrella championing pro-choice legislation, concern for the environment, protecting children, banning weapons and controlling military spending. All of the issues are good, however, her label hearkens back to the term domesticity, and seems to infer that these are women’s issues, not subjects that affect everyone equally. In 1992, when women and Democrats didn’t seem to be able to lose the election, Boxer was able to fully delve into these issues as she embarked on her journey from the House to the Senate.
The government’s contracts are always up to scrutiny, as people have become more aware of the expensive items that are made by manufacturers who are inexperienced in the product line they are selling, but have been granted a contract that encompasses items that they have to create from scratch. Boxer proposes greater scrutiny on these expenditures, as well as meals for government officials, and other cuts that reduce government spending, as opposed to government programs.
Another of Boxer’s concerns is keeping abortions legal and safe. She mentions the story a friend relayed to her that drives her to keep up the fight. The friend had an illegal abortion, and emerged with heavy bleeding and the question of whether she would ever be able to have children. Boxer stands behind the Freedom of Choice Act, to allow women the most basic right – the right to have full command over their own bodies.
Economics is simple, according to Boxer. In order to ensure our country will remain competitive in the future we must all make an investment in children’s education. She says the cost we pay out will be less expensive in the long run, for example, paying for an immunization is less example then paying for treatment of disease. Additionally, paying for a juvenile to go into a detention center for a year is comparable with paying for a year at Harvard (she does not say that every child should be sent to Harvard: she, herself, is a graduate of Brooklyn College). Additionally, she advocates prenatal care for mothers, to help women have healthy babies.
Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of getting elected, if not the most difficult is raising money. She is a firm supporter of EMILY’s List, a name which stems from the founding mother, Ellen Malcom’s phrase, Early Money Is Like Yeast….yeast which serves as a catalyst to the woman’s campaign and rise to the position she desires. Members pay three hundred dollars or more and is given to their designees, which they include with payment. Boxer explains that this type of financing is unlike PACs, because “grassroots organizations like EMILY’s List are not the problem; they are part of the solution. EMILY’s List does not lobby and has no economic interest in the outcome of elections.”
Boxer came under great scrutiny during the Clinton trial. As a Democrat, and being elected at the same time as Clinton, she has important ties to him. Her bonds are even stronger, as her daughter is married to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brother. According to Alan Elsner, a writer from Reuters, in “The Lewinsky Effect Taking a Toll on Sen. Boxer” article of September 9, 1998, Boxer was accused of not taking a firm stand in the scandal, which made her criticism of Clarence Thomas hypocritical. In response, “Boxer took the Senate floor…to say that Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky was ‘wrong, indefensible and …immoral.’” Boxer warned Republicans during the trial that they would, “go into the year 2000 as the party of impeachment.”
Although Boxer seems to be a defender of women, her defense of Clinton seems to make her stance ingenuine. She mentions over and over again that she is in government to protect those she serves, but in the end we have to wonder (as with any elected official) whether she is a humanitarian or a politician.
Strangers in the Senate by Barbara Boxer