Twenty-five years ago, women who chafed at the spectacle of an all-male Senate panel grilling Anita Hill over her allegations of sexual harassment rose up and entered the corridors of power. The media dubbed it “The Year of the Woman,” a title that sounded, to many, irritatingly temporary.
The explosive gains of 1992, which more than doubled women’s meager representation in Congress, gave way to incremental growth that merited no slogan. It would take women another two decades to grow their ranks on Capitol Hill by the 68 percent rate achieved in that single year.
This weekend, a quarter century after the Year of the Woman elevated expectations for women in politics, some 250 women gathered in Boston for the biennial convention of the National Women’s Political Caucus to consider what comes next. These days, women are bristling at fresh images of all-male panels negotiating away their maternity coverage, and though their outrage may prove to be as motivating as it was in the early 1990s, they are confounded to feel it a quarter century later.
“I didn’t think we’d be in this position at my age,” said 59-year-old Sue Berkel of Austin, Texas, a member of the caucus’s board. “I thought we’d be farther along. I thought we’d have a woman president, and there would be larger percentages of women in positions of power.”
The women’s caucus, a nonpartisan group that trains and supports women candidates to increase their numbers in politics, last year endorsed 62 women for the US House, Senate, and the presidency.
Thirty-two of those candidates won. One loss was particularly conspicuous.
Still, some feminist activists hope the brutal 2016 presidential election cycle, which showed many women that Americans were willing to endorse a libertine man over an ambitious woman, has triggered a new wave of political engagement.
Lauren Duncan, a Smith College professor who teaches the psychology of political activism, said that the gender-loaded election cycle may prove to be as motivating as the 1991 Senate hearings for Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, where America watched Hill being scrutinized for her allegations of sexual harassment by a powerful man.
“It’s one of those events very similar to what happened in 1991 that shocked many women out of their complacency, and it just galvanized them to feel like they needed to do something,” said Duncan.
The sudden public awareness of sexual harassment has echoes in today’s disputes over the prevalence of sexual assault.
But now, the protections put in place on college campuses, newly held to account for investigating sexual assaults, are poised for reversal by Trump administration officials who say much deference is being paid to alleged victims at the expense of the rights of the accused.
For many women, all of this is seen through the filter of a president who was captured on video boasting about grabbing women’s genitalia.
“It goes back to the highest elected officials thinking, under what circumstances is it OK that you can demean and demoralize women?” said Noel Busch-Armendariz, a researcher in domestic violence and sexual assault who leads the Texas Women’s Political Caucus.
The new administration has also reversed the government’s course on women’s health issues, trying to unravel Obamacare’s mandatory insurance coverage for birth control, for instance, even after attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act have failed.
“This is a rough time for women,” said Donna Lent, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “The level of equality — even though it wasn’t what we wanted it to be — is being eroded day by day by this administration. That’s why you have this rising up.”
Since the election and the massive women’s marches that followed, thousands of women have expressed interest in launching candidacies nationwide. In Massachusetts, a respected Republican operative is considering challenging US Senator Elizabeth Warren, raising the prospect of the state’s first all-female Senate race in 2018.
Yet, the notoriously bruising political arena may seem all the more perilous after Hillary Clinton’s experience, and progress has been slow. Only 52 of Massachusetts’ 200 state legislators are women.
For the first time in Massachusetts history, women occupy a majority of the six statewide elected offices, state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry reminded the women’s caucus Friday night. (Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Attorney General Maura Healey, Treasurer Deb Goldberg and Auditor Suzanne M. Bump.)
But a woman has yet to be elected governor. (Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift assumed the role on acting basis in 2001 when her predecessor, Paul Cellucci, stepped down to take an ambassadorship.)
“We’ve come a long way,” said Dorcena Forry. “But we still have so much more work to do.’’
It’s no longer surprising to see a woman holding a leadership position in government: Dorcena Forry herself now heads up the non-official but highly traditional St. Patrick’s Day roast for Massachusetts politicians; Therese Murray served as president of the Massachusetts Senate for eight years, and Nancy Pelosi has led the US House Democrats since 2007.
But if women are no longer curiosities in politics, they are still dramatically outnumbered. Women make up under 20 percent of Congress: 430 of the 535 members of the House and Senate are men. Forty-four of the nation’s 50 governors are men.
When they have a seat at the table, women can sometimes make waves, US Representative Niki Tsongas noted at a reception of the women’s political caucus Friday evening.
Last week’s middle-of-the-night vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act was blocked by the steadfast opposition of two female US senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, along with John McCain of Arizona.
But even when women are seen in Congress, they are not always heard. Senator Warren was ceremoniously shushed for speaking too long about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Hashtags ensued.
When the Senate Select Intelligence Committee interviewed Sessions, Senator Kamala Harris’s tough questioning was regarded as overly aggressive; her fellow senators interrupted her in a bid to make her stop interrupting him.
Those episodes have highlighted the overwhelming maleness of select groups such as the 15-member intelligence committee. A dozen of the members are men.
“We want to make sure that we have women sitting at the table and women in the room who are capable of making the decisions that best impact our communities,” said Gail Jackson-Blount, president of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, which hosted this weekend’s convention.
Lent, the national president, said she thinks women won’t gain true equality until America adopts an Equal Rights Amendment — an effort that started all the way back in 1923.
Though the ERA was passed by Congress a full 45 years ago, it was not ratified by enough states to become part of the Constitution.
But it, too, is making a comeback. The state of Nevada ratified it in March, 35 years after the deadline.
As Julie Anderson, a senior research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, put it, there are “a lot of fights that we sort of wanted to believe were done. We now realize that you can’t take any gains for granted.”