In 1991, Anita Hill sat before a panel of fourteen male senators who aggressively questioned her claim that she had been sexually harassed by then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. As the nation watched the hearings, riveted and repulsed, one Washington state senator couldn’t help asking herself, “Who’s saying what I would say if I was there?”
The answer? No one—there were only two women in the Senate at the time, and neither was on the Judiciary Committee. So in 1992, Patty Murray, the self-proclaimed “mom in tennis shoes,” laced up and ran for the Senate. The Anita Hill effect spawned the “Year of the Woman,” when nineteen women won House seats and four, including Murray, won seats in the Senate.
Two decades later, Republican attacks on women just might turn 2012 into another Year of the Woman. To understand why, we’ll recap this year’s parade of horrors. In February, House Republicans organized a hearing on contraception—but didn’t invite women to testify. In a stunning echo of the Anita Hill moment, five men, mostly clergy, shared their “expertise” on the issue. And when women’s health advocate Sandra Fluke later spoke before a Democratic panel, Rush Limbaugh hurled crude insults at her. Also in February, the Virginia House of Delegates tried to pass a measure requiring women to undergo a medically unnecessary and invasive transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion. After a nationwide uproar, legislators passed a scaled-back but equally insulting bill, which Republican Governor Bob McDonnell signed into law.
The kicker came in August, with Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin’s outrageous “legitimate rape” comment. Many top Republicans initially distanced themselves from Akin and his false, degrading remark. But he called their bluff, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee suggested it will likely back his campaign against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill.
The GOP establishment’s revived support of Akin isn’t surprising. This is a party whose platform calls for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion with no exceptions, and whose vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, is a co-sponsor of Akin’s “personhood” bill, which grants a fertilized egg the same legal rights as a human being. In stark contrast, Democrats held one of the most pro-woman conventions in history. Besides Michelle Obama, the party featured as speakers Cecile Richards, Sandra Fluke, Sister Simone Campbell, Elizabeth Warren and others, and the platform stands up for women’s health, rights and economic future. This increased enthusiasm among women voters drove President Obama’s post-convention bounce.
Many of the most exciting Senate races are being waged by progressive Democratic women, like Warren in Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. Their success in capturing women’s votes hinges not only on their support for women’s rights, but on their willingness to defend the safety net. “Social issues matter in the gender gap,” Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center recently told NPR. “But the real big dividing lines are what government should be doing for the poor, the elderly and the size of the safety net.”
Obama will win only if the gender gap holds, and Democrats will hang on to the Senate only if candidates like Warren and Baldwin prevail. If they succeed, this could be more than another Year of the Woman. It could be the year in which Americans reject the GOP’s “you’re on your own” economics and affirm a commitment to one another.
Also in this week’s issue, Patricia J. Williams writes that we ignore the anti-intellectualism of the right at our own peril.