Thanks to Herman Cain, Anita Hill is back in the news - and it couldn't come at a better time.
For many American women, Anita Hill's testimony before the all-white, all male, largely dismissive Senate Judiciary committee touched a political nerve. In response the following year, women ran for public office in record numbers. Five women won seats in the U.S. Senate, including one incumbent; 24 new women entered the House of Representatives. The press labeled it "the year of the woman." A logjam had been broken.
Or so it seemed.
Twenty years later, 1992 remains the high water mark for American women's gains in national elections. In fact, women's progress since then has been glacial. Over the intervening decades, and despite women comprising the majority of voters, the percentage of women has grown from 7 to 17 percent in the U.S. Senate and from 11 to 17 percent in the House of Representatives. Collectively, women have never reached 25 percent of state legislators. No surprise then that the U.S. ranks 69th in the world for gender parity in elected office.
As we head into the 2012 elections, there are signs that another gender-driven prairie fire may be igniting. A close look suggests the Thomas-Hill hearings may have poured gas and struck a match, but it was opportunity and preparation, disenchantment with the status quo and an accumulation of small indignities that fueled women's victories in 1992. The parallels between 1992 and 2012 seem almost too pat, but the conclusion is unmistakable: if ever there was a year to run, this is it.
Opportunity: Redistricting, Reapportionment and a Presidential election
Once every 20 years, the post-reapportionment and redistricting election coincides with a presidential election. Redistricting creates open state legislative districts that are easier to win than unseating an incumbent. Reapportionment moves congressional seats, adding and subtracting seats from states, often prompting retirements. The presidential election mobilizes "occasional" voters who are more open to newcomer, "non-traditional" candidates. The combination produces more opportunity for women than in any other election year.
Preparation: Women moving up and moving over
Scholars analyzing the 1992 "year of the woman" define preparation as an increased number of women in lower elected offices ready to move up. In 1990, 1,273 women served in state legislatures and 47 in statewide offices; in 2010, 1,809 women were legislators and 71women held statewide office.
In 2011, the national network of organizations dedicated to electing women has joined forces -- within and across states --to identify accomplished women candidates in winnable districts for Congress and state legislatures.
Disenchantment, small indignities: bad economy, bad decisions, bad boys
A lingering economic downturn in 1991 made re-election a challenge for incumbents. In 2011 high unemployment, a continuing mortgage crisis and bitter anti-corporate sentiment evidenced by Occupy Wall Street mobilizations across the country suggest that incumbents may face similar voter resistance next year. According to an ABC Washington Post poll, 63 percent of voters are looking for someone new to represent them in Congress.
Prior to the 1992 elections, the Supreme Court decided two abortion cases that curtailed Roe v. Wade and raised concern among women. Both in the 1989 Webster decision and in 1992's Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court rolled back protections many thought guaranteed by Roe.
Almost 20 years later, the Supreme Court again set off another alarm among women. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007) and in Dukes v. Walmart (2011), the Supreme Court limited a woman's right to sue her employer for wage and promotion discrimination, respectively. The fact that the female justices dissented in whole or in part in both cases underscores the gender divide.
In 1991, the House banking scandal exposed a clubby and protective House of Representatives. Some members lost their seats while others managed to squeak back in.
Even before the recent charges levelled at Cain, a steady parade of men in high office has trooped across the public stage, heads hung low, to apologize for behaving badly. From simply sophomoric to seriously narcissistic, their behavior is disappointing and demoralizing. What offends is not the sex, real or simulated, but the idea that a country so beset by woes, so in need of mature leadership, must contend with this.
It would be unfortunate, given all these factors and the result in 1992, if women did not flood the field of candidates and compete to have a greater say in the direction of the country. More and more studies from business and social sciences report that gender balanced committees and teams are more productive and effective at achieving their goals from problem solving to investment returns.
Reports now routinely identify the difference that women make in office -- from introducing more bills than their male counterparts in Congress to bringing more resources home to their districts. Women institute transparent procedures, expand the scope of policy discussions by infusing family realities, and build broader coalitions, often across party lines in order to succeed.
That's why, recapturing the emotion triggered in 1992 by Anita Hill, we're reminding women across the country: Don't get mad, get elected!