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The striking parallels between 1992’s “Year of the Woman” and 2018, explained by a historian

In both years, women ran for office to push back against sexual misconduct.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The record-breaking number of women candidates running for office in 2018 drew comparisons with the last time there was a so-called “Year of the Woman” 26 years ago: in 1992.

That year, as in 2018, a surge of women candidates ran for office and won. When the ballots were counted, America had elected a record-breaking four women as senators and 24 women as representatives to Congress. These included lawmakers who are still in Congress today such as Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Patty Murray (D-WA).

This year, more than 100 women are expected to be elected to the House, with 22 who are set to serve in the Senate next term, shattering a whole new set of records.

But that’s not where the parallels end.

In 1992, much like 2018, the country was grappling with a series of high-profile sexual misconduct cases. Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court even after Anita Hill levied sexual harassment allegations against him. Bill Clinton had won the White House while being dogged by allegations of infidelity. And women, broadly, were furious.

Also in 1992, as in 2018, a high number of lawmakers were retiring, says Georgetown University professor Michele Swers, who has studied the impact that a growing number of women in Congress has on policy. These retirements helped clear the field for new candidates to get a shot at open seats, neutralizing some of the advantages that are typically held by incumbents.

In 1992, many of the retirements were due to a scandal implicating more than 240 members of Congress who had overdrawn their House bank accounts. This year, for a combination of reasons, a staggering 40-plus Republican House members have decided not to run again, similarly putting these seats up for grabs.

I sat down with Swers to discuss how the influx of women in Congress helped reshape policy in 1992 and what it could mean this time around. Following 1992’s “Year of the Woman,” lawmakers passed bills including the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Violence Against Women Act, she says. Today, with even more women in leadership roles in Congress, they are expected to continue influencing legislation in a wide range of areas including immigration and health care.

“You see a lot of Democrats and Democratic women who are running saying they were pushed to do this because of the Trump administration threatening health care,” says Swers. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

1992 was a wave too. But the waves are bigger now.

Li Zhou

Could you talk a bit about the parallels between this cycle and the one that took place in 1992 — the other renowned “Year of the Woman”?

Michele Swers

The big thing about 1992 and now is that 1992 starts this trend where most of the candidates coming in and the officeholders coming in are Democratic women. Prior to 1992, it was not very many women but sort of even between Republicans and Democrats.

Since 1992, Republicans have been fairly flat, and it’s Democrats that have been increasing [numbers of women].

Just like 1992, if this is the Year of the Woman, it’s more likely to be the Year of the Democratic Woman. Similar to 1992, there is a lot in the political context about gender and about wanting outsiders.

From left: Geri Rothman-Serot, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), L. Yeaked, and Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) celebrate women’s victories on June 8, 1992.
Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Back in 1992, there were more open seats than usual. Even if you have desire, generally you need to have opportunity, and opportunity is more likely to come in open seats. Because of the retirements — a lot of them were about scandal — people were looking for outsider candidates that weren’t associated with politics.

And then, as now, many people look to women as being not part of politics, being outsider candidates.

Li Zhou

Are there other similarities that stand out to you?

Michele Swers

Then, as now, there’s a lot of talk about gender, gender roles, sexual harassment. In 1992, it was surrounding the Clarence Thomas hearings and the testimony of Anita Hill, bringing attention to problems of sexual harassment in the workplace.

After all the attention that she drew to the issue, you saw increasing complaints related to sexual harassment, and you saw several candidates say that they were jumping into the race because they didn’t like the way she was treated. Of course, most famously, Patty Murray, who’s still there [in Congress], Carol Moseley Braun, Dianne Feinstein, who’s still there, Barbara Boxer.

Now you hear similar things, probably on an even larger scale. There’s the #MeToo movement, and then there’s just all of this anger at President Trump, some of it related to gender issues, some of it related to other progressive issues more broadly.

Li Zhou

Conversely, what are some of the key differences you see between then and now?

Michele Swers

In 1992, what we were calling a wave is a smaller number of women getting elected. But because prior to 1992, there had never been more than two women serving in the Senate at the same time, to get four women elected was a huge deal. Now there’s not an overwhelming number, but there’s more. And women’s leadership is more accepted. And there’s more infrastructure than there was then.

Now you have all of these training programs for women to run for office. On the Democratic side, you have Emily’s List, which raises just a ton of money and is up there with any of the major Democratic political action committees both in its name recognition and its ability to garner funds to give to pro-choice female candidates.

A lot of [what’s involved in] running for office these days is about whether you can raise money or not. If it’s going to cost me a million dollars to win a House seat, I’ve got to have help in putting together my campaign infrastructure and fundraising. There are all of these groups that have grown up similar to Emily’s List that are working to elect women candidates. And that wasn’t really there in 1992. There were just a few organizations, and they didn’t have the clout they have now.

From left: Sens. Patty Murray, Carol Moseley Braun, Barbara Mikulski, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer.
Wikimedia Commons

How Republican women have changed since the 1990s

Li Zhou

I know you had mentioned that with Republican women, you aren’t seeing a big bump now and you didn’t see one back then either. Are there other things that have changed for Republican women in the interim?

Michele Swers

There are more Republican women now than there were then. The biggest change you see for Republican women is a change in the women who are getting elected.

In the early ’90s, the women that were serving as Republicans tended to be more moderate ideologically and from places like New Jersey and Connecticut. I’m thinking of Nancy Johnson from Connecticut, Marge Roukema from New Jersey, Olympia Snowe from Maine.

These were more moderate Republicans. Since 1994, the center of the Republican Party has really moved, so now it’s a more conservative party, it’s a more Southern party.

So that leads to who can get elected, as a Republican needs to be able to conform to that type of picture. So now you see more conservative Republican women getting elected.

Women were more moderate than men, and in the House, that ... converged somewhere in the early 2000s, so that now Republican women in the House are just as conservative as the Republican men. There are very few Republican women in the Senate, but they still tend to be a little more moderate than Republican men, so you don’t see a female Ted Cruz or Mike Lee just yet.

The biggest change among Republicans is who’s getting elected and what their policy priorities are. Just after the Republican revolution in 1994, they also did a lot to rein in Planned Parenthood funding and some other policy riders related to restricting abortion. At that time, you would have seen more of those policies being sponsored by Republican men. For example, Mike Pence was somebody who sponsored some of these in the early 2000s. Now, there are Republican women who are eager to champion these issues.

You see Diane Black, who’s had a number of bills to defund Planned Parenthood. She [ran for Tennessee governor,] so she’ll be retiring. Same with Marsha Blackburn. Marsha Blackburn chaired a committee to investigate Planned Parenthood, and she’s running to replace Bob Corker in the Senate.

Li Zhou

Do you see Republican women getting a boost from some of the cultural shifts we’re seeing, buoyed by broader women’s empowerment and the #MeToo movement?

Michele Swers

Right now the Republican Party is Donald Trump’s party. So when Republican women get a boost, they’re associating themselves with President Trump and his policies.

There are certainly some Republican women who are running who would say that, who feel strongly about issues like sexual harassment. Women in Congress — that’s been fairly bipartisan. Joni Ernst has been very involved — related to sexual harassment in the military. Deb Fischer has been involved as well. Barbara Comstock from Virginia was involved in rewriting the rules of the House and the bill that passed regarding how that’s treated among congressional staff.

GOP Senate Candidate Marsha Blackburn Campaigns In Tennessee
Rep. Marsha Blackburn is a Republican vying for Sen. Bob Corker’s seat in Tennessee.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The “Year of the Woman” changed policy in 1992 — and it could happen again

Li Zhou

What kind of changes did you see in the way that policy was being crafted and prioritized after more women joined the ranks of the House and the Senate in 1992?

Michele Swers

After the 1992 election, you had a fully Democratically controlled Congress and a Democratic president. So that larger context is always important to keep in mind.

The women that were elected at that time, there was a lot of change related to issues like family and medical leave. President [George] H.W. Bush had vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act and that was the first legislation that Bill Clinton signed, sort of like how the Lilly Ledbetter Act became the first legislation that President Obama signed. And that was pushed forward for many years by Pat Schroeder, who was a Democrat. Marge Roukema, who was a Republican, was also very involved in that. So there were several initiatives that were related to women that got passed. There was a lot of work on women’s health at that time.

They established an Office of Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health, which required women to be included in clinical trials, things like that.

There was a lot of action on issues related to women’s health. At that time, there was also a bill passed called FACE, Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, to protect women who were going into abortion clinics by aggressive action from protesters.

That early 1990s period, right after the 1992 election, is this period where you have a lot of action on women’s issues, but you also have Democrats in control of everything. The Violence Against Women Act also passed at that time. That was a pretty big piece of legislation.

Li Zhou

What kinds of policy changes would you expect to see now?

Michele Swers

If you’re looking at now and what would the change be, well, now you have a Republican president. Most people think that the Senate is going to stay Republican. There’s a possibility that the House turns Democrat. These are the kinds of conditions that generally lead more to gridlock than large new initiatives.

Having said that, you can see that there are more women who have seniority now than there were back in 1992. So if the House was to change hands, the Appropriations Committee chair is going to be Nita Lowey, so that’s going to be a first female chair of the House Appropriations Committee. That’s a pretty big perch because that’s where all the money is going to be sent. So if there’s gridlock in Congress, meaning that not so much freestanding legislation is going to get passed, then a lot of what will get passed is going to be must-pass spending bills and people trying to put things as riders onto must-pass spending bills.

So that would make Nita Lowey fairly pivotal. And it’s possible that the ranking member could be Kay Granger, that would have to be worked out within the Republican caucus and jockeying for things. But, she’s certainly in the mix for it.

Then you would have a female chair and ranking member, and they’ve worked together before. They have done some things for women’s rights through that subcommittee, so you could see them cooperating there again to advance proposals related to women’s rights or policy issues. That could be an area where they could have some power.

If Democrats retake control of the House, obviously there’s going to be a lot of focus on investigations of various actions of the Trump administration. So you can see potential for some things to pass, depending on what President Trump wants to do.

They could cooperate on infrastructure if he decided that he wanted to go that way. You could see smaller bills getting passed, even some related to women’s rights or perhaps more being done on issues related to sexual assault and sexual harassment. Higher education reauthorization still needs to go through. You could possibly see something related to child care and family leave since that’s been a priority for Ivanka Trump.

There’s been some movement on that among some of the Republicans in the Senate. Their proposals are generally not of interest to Democrats, but maybe they could come to some agreement through the tax system.

Li Zhou

Do you think the promotion of these policies in 1992 was tied to the fact that there were more women in Congress?

Michele Swers

Yes, I think so. The women who were in Congress were joined by other women who shared those priorities, pushed that forward. The president and the Democrats in general, looking at the political context of the time, there was a wave of enthusiasm from women and they were demanding certain policy changes and they were being responsive to that. So I think you see the same thing now and at least efforts to be responsive to those demands.

I’m not sure how far they would get in a divided House and Senate, with a Republican presidential administration, but you might have some changes where they could compromise.

The other thing that could be problematic for the women is that when you’re coming in as a freshman, you’re low in seniority. And Congress runs on seniority.

Li Zhou

Are you seeing women candidates in the midterm elections prioritize certain policy areas over others?

Michele Swers

Democrats, in general, tend to prioritize issues that people call women’s issues these days. Among Democrats, the Democratic women give the most attention to these issues, so anything related to reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood, those kinds of things. But also health care is huge right now because the Trump administration has gotten rid of the individual mandate, and there’s concern that there’s going to be large increases in premiums and problems for people who are on the exchanges and things.

So you see a lot of Democrats and Democratic women who are running saying they were pushed to do this because of the Trump administration threatening health care and that they want to see more done on health care.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has helped catapult Medicare-for-all into the spotlight.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Li Zhou

Are there other differences that you see resulting from more women in Congress?

Michele Swers

Women, particularly the Democratic women, but also moderate Republicans, are more likely to focus on and sponsor bills related to women, children, and families — to have that as part of their package of things that they advocate for. I think that continues to be true.

In addition to offering new perspective on policy, the rise of women candidates reshapes how people view those in positions of power

Li Zhou

What do you see as the impact of the surge in women candidacies even if the proportion who get into office ends up being much lower?

Michele Swers

I think the more you see women running in different districts, there’s a lot of research out there that people see role models when people see somebody like you or talking about the issues you’re interested in. Maybe you pay a little more attention to politics. It normalizes the idea of women being in politics and being qualified for office and that they can handle certain types of issues, and that people won’t notice it as much the next time you have a woman running.

Li Zhou

What do you think it’s going to take for Republican women to see the same kind of momentum Democratic women have been seeing?

Michele Swers

For Republican women, it’s a little more difficult because they don’t have a Republican Emily’s List. So they have several groups that try to raise money for Republican women, but none of them have the name recognition or the power that Emily’s List has. It would be difficult for them to have an organization like that. Because right now, Democratic donors and Democratic voters are open to this kind of argument — that you need more diversity and more diverse perspectives in office. Republicans tend to be more concerned about, “Am I electing a conservative?”

They don’t like the idea of affirmative action of quotas. They want people to advance on merit and for it to be gender-blind.

Li Zhou

Between 1992 and now, what other flashpoints have you seen when there’s been a surge in women pursuing office?

Michele Swers

There was a small surge in 2000 of women getting elected to the Senate. Some of that had to do with the fact that Patty Murray was the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chair at the time, so she was focused a lot on recruiting female candidates. Even Republicans, they just chose Elise Stefanik to head their recruitment for this year, so I think they are trying to put in place people who are looking to get a different kind of candidate.

Li Zhou

If Hillary Clinton had been elected to office, do you think we would be seeing the same wave of women candidates that we’re seeing now?

Michele Swers

No, unfortunately. Because I think people tend to be motivated to participate in politics more by anger than by giving thanks. So there would have been a certain amount of pride and maybe people thinking they could do this too, so maybe you would have more Democratic women stepping forward because she provided that role model.

But I think the anger fueled by President Trump and then the Women’s Marches that were held after the election, and the combination with the #MeToo movement, have fueled more women to be upset about things that you see as under threat.

A lot of these women see reproductive rights as under threat; they see health care as under threat. They’re mobilizing because they see a threat to rights that they thought they had.


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