At a moment when gender politics is thick in the air, it is a good time to reconsider another spring, exactly 20 years ago, when an unprecedented wave of women set their sights on Washington.
That was the election that was supposed to change everything. But it didn’t — not on the scale once expected.
Nor did a series of “firsts” since then: a woman as speaker of the U.S. House, another on the Republican presidential ticket, still another winning nearly 18 million votes for president.
In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that these path-blazing women have proved to be cautionary examples — not role models — for others who might consider running for office.
Overall, the number of women elected, while rising through much of the 1990s, has hit a plateau. That is why advocates of all political stripes are redoubling their efforts to elect more women this fall.
Jean Lloyd-Jones, then a state senator from Iowa, was one of those who declared in 1992 that her voice was needed on Capitol Hill.
“I decided to run because of the Clarence Thomas hearings,” Lloyd-Jones recalled. Her own Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) had voted in favor of the Supreme Court nominee, saying he had not believed claims of sexual harassment by University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill.
When Lloyd-Jones won the Democratic nomination for Senate that June, she was helping write the narrative of what would become known as “The Year of the Woman.”
Many now lament that it was not much more than that — one anomalous year.
Lloyd-Jones fell short, but more than two dozen others didn’t.
Overnight, the number of women in the Senate doubled, and female membership in the House went from 28 to 47. They made their presence felt beyond Capitol Hill, with the passage of legislation that made the workplace more family-friendly, that directed more medical research to women’s health issues and that made the criminal justice system more responsive to domestic violence.
“I really felt that we were paving the way for a huge number of women, but the promise of 1992 was never realized,” said Lloyd-Jones, now 82, who spoke at a ceremony commemorating that campaign year on Monday at American University.
“In 1992, there was such a surge. It was like, hey, that glass ceiling is being shattered,” agreed former congresswoman Constance A. Morella (R-Md.). “I was very excited about it, and then in 1994 [when Republicans took control of Congress, wiping out much of the Class of ’92], you had a slight change. And then it was level.”
Morella was one of three women in Maryland’s House delegation in 1992; there is now one. Virginia — which has elected just three women to Congress in its history — has none.
Morella blames political polarization, which she said has made both parties less hospitable for the moderate brand of politics that she and many other women of her era represented. And pro-choice women such as herself, once the norm among Republican women in federal office, are finding it far more difficult to compete in GOP primary races.
More recent years have also seen expectations for women to rise, only to be dashed.
Hillary Rodham Clinton had said that her 2008 campaign would make it “unremarkable to think that a woman can be president of the United States.” Sarah Palin boasted that her elevation to the presidential ticket later that year proved “we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”
It now appears the opposite may have happened: Women — particularly the accomplished and successful ones who would make the most appealing candidates — have been struck not by the opportunity but by the toll that politics can take.
“Both Clinton and Palin’s campaigns also provided many potential candidates with a window into how women are treated when they run for office. And what women of both political parties saw likely confirmed some of their worst fears about the electoral arena,” wrote professors Jennifer L. Lawless of American University and Richard L. Fox of Loyola Marymount University. In January, they published a study on the under-representation of women in U.S. politics, where they analyzed the different attitudes of men and women toward the endeavor.
Potential female candidates have seen others have a tough go since then. During the 2010 midterm elections, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was vilified in $65 million worth of Republican ads, 161,203 spots in all, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. The speaker was portrayed as, among other things, a cackling witch.
Pelosi insisted that the barrage — the most intense felt by any speaker since Newt Gingrich — was a tribute to her effectiveness in passing the Democrats’ agenda, including the health-care law that is the signature achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency.