When Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith replaces Sen. Al Franken, she will become the record-setting 22nd woman in the Senate, and as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations remove powerful political figures (save the president) from office, a number of commentators have called this “The Year of the Woman.”
That term was popularized in the press in 1992, when a surge of women—frustrated by Anita Hill’s treatment by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee as she testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her—ran for office and won. And it’s easy to see why the title is tempting to redeploy now. While Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat left the glass ceiling of the presidency fully intact, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University had recorded 383 registered female candidates planning to run for a seat in the House as of December 18, almost 200 more than there were at the same point in 2016, and twice as many women are potential gubernatorial candidates as in 2014. The Democratic, pro-choice PAC Emily’s List told Vox they’d heard from 20,000 prospective female candidates this year (as compared to 900 in 2015-16).
But that proclamation rings of déjà vu; we’ve been here, trumpeting the Year of the Woman, many times before in the (only) 97 years since the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. So Slate investigated some of the previous periods anointed the “Year of the Woman” and looked at data from the Center from American Women and Politics, the Pew Research Center, the Congressional Research Service, and the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress to see how well those hopeful headlines withstood the test of time.
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: Marie Smith in the Washington Post
Why: “A record number of Republican women are seeking office at national and state levels in the November elections according to Mary Brooks, assistant chairman of the Republican National Committee…Mrs. Brooks said that 1966 is the ‘Year of the Woman’ in politics, emphasizing that this year marks the 46th anniversary of the women’s suffrage amendment.”
How this looks now: The article touts the number of Republican women campaigning; two for the Senate, 12 for the House, 14 for state office. But only one non-incumbent, Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts, won, raising the number of Republican women in the House to a whopping five. And ever since 1965, Democratic women have outnumbered Republican women in the House.
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: Judy Klemesrud in the New York Times
Why: “The year 1968 may well go down in history as the Year of the Woman. In the last 12 months women have won new rights and have been admitted to places where female faces had never been seen before…Another major ‘first’ came when Mrs. Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn became the first Negro woman member of Congress.”
How this looks now: Klemesrud’s article focused not just on politics but also on Equal Employment Opportunities Commission guidelines against sex-based discrimination in job advertisements and Yale’s announcement that it would begin admitting women. But it’s also laced with dated rhetoric that would read as sexist now—for instance, the article notes Chisholm’s weight. But despite some strides—in 1969, Rep. Charlotte T. Reid dared to wear pants on the House floor—the number of women in Congress remained low after the election, with a total of 10 in the House (on fewer than the previous session) and one in the Senate.
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: Maureen Dowd in the New York Times
Why: “It is possible to re-create the aura that led so many Democrats to envision a shining year for women in politics, a year when Geraldine Ferraro would unleash ‘small-f’ feminism—that flickering and apolitical sense of injustice they felt was common to all American women…None of these particular women, whose elation filled my notebooks, were elected. ‘It turned into the biggest non-event in history,’ scoffed Robert Dole, the Senate’s new majority leader, discussing ‘The Year of the Woman.’”
How this looks now: In a “landslide” defeat, Mondale and Ferraro lost every state but his home turf of Minnesota (and the reliably liberal bastion of Washington, D.C.). There were, however, some accomplishments to celebrate: The total of current female governors would rise to two thanks to Madeleine M. Kunin of Vermont, and Rhode Island had elected the nation’s first female state attorney general, Arlene Violet. However, only one of the ten women running for Senate won (Nancy Kassebaum, an incumbent), and 29 percent of men said having Ferraro on the ticket made them less likely to vote Democratic, according to an ABC News poll. “We can’t afford to have a party so feminized that it has no appeal to males,” a Democratic consultant told the Times.
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: The Economist
Why: “Mrs. [Barbara] Boxer, who will probably run for Mr. Alan Cranston’s Senate seat in 1992, epitomized a new, tough, unapologetic kind of woman politician ready to take the 1990s by storm…Is 1990 going to be the political Year of the Woman?”
How this looks now: Boxer did successfully run for Senate in 1992. But even while the number of women in the House reached a record high of 30, 1990-91 illustrated the plateau of female representation on the Hill; there were more women in the Senate in 1937 (three) than there were more than 50 years later (two). But pollster I.A. “Bud” Lewis told the U.S. News & World Report that the polls showed changing political tides: "This year, for the first time, it is not obvious that it is a handicap to be a woman,” he said.
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: Everyone. This is the year memorialized in popular parlance and Wikipedia entries. The quote below comes from a piece by R.W. Apple, Jr. for the New York Times.
Why: “Last Tuesday’s California primary, in which two women won Democratic Senate nominations and 16 nonincumbent women of both parties won House nominations, has convinced officials of women's political organizations that the hour of their breakthrough is at hand. ‘This is no longer some isolated emotional triumph of women backed by women,’ said Harriett Woods of the National Women's Political Caucus…‘This represents a watershed shift in public attitudes.’”
How this looks now: More women gained seats in Congress than ever before. Four women were elected to the Senate in regular and special elections, tripling the number of women in the chamber from 1991. Meanwhile, the House reached a new high of 47 female representatives, more than half of them newcomers. And the number of female state legislators increased by nearly two percentage points.
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: Lois Romano in The Washington Post
Why: “Two months after Sarah Palin joined the GOP ticket, and four months after Hillary Clinton ended her quest for the presidency, 2008 is turning out to be a transformative year for women in politics… As Election Day nears, it's clear that gender was not a disqualifying factor for either Clinton or Palin.”
How this looks now: The McCain-Palin ticket lost the presidential race, and both Clinton and Palin were subject to sexist coverage (remember “Caribou Barbie”?). The number of women in Congress remained basically unchanged from the previous election.
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times
Why: “This season’s primary elections suggest that 2010 may become the Year of the Conservative Woman…GOP primary voters, a deeply conservative bunch, don't appear to have much of a problem with strong women in public life anymore. Not only that: The GOP is consciously trying to turn gender into a selling point.”
How this looks now: The number of women in Congress stayed the same, although a record 128 Republican women filed to run for the House, according to the New York Times. However, only 47 of those women won their primaries. Despite that disappointment, 2010’s elections also appointed the first female governors of color: Republicans Nikki Haley (now ambassador to the United Nations) and Susana Martinez (still the governor of New Mexico).
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: Tara Sonenshine in HuffPost as well as CBS News as early as 2013
Why: “The big question for 2016—will the United States break with history and elect its first woman president? Will it follow the British lead? Will it be more like Canada to the north, which has had a female leader, and less like Mexico to the south in terms of women at the top of the political pyramid? Electing a woman as U.S. president could change the balance of power in the world—or certainly the balance sheet on global female leadership. If we are truly a role model, others may follow suit.” And Rolling Stone ran a Janet Reitman piece with the subheading “Most women know Trump’s brand of misogyny—and that’s likely to cost him the White House.”
How this looks now: Well, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. In September, The Guardian wrote that 80 percent of Trump’s Senate-approved nominees have been men, “the most male-dominated government in decades.” Women still make up less than 20 percent of Congress, and Democratic women outnumber Republican women at a ratio of roughly 3:1 in both chambers.
2018 or 2020
Who called it “The Year of the Woman”: James Hohmann in the Washington Post and Bill Scher in Politico Magazine
Why: Hohmann wrote, “Now there are dozens of high-profile cases of alleged sexual misconduct, from the U.S. House to state houses and from the military to the media. It stands to reason that this could lead to bigger backlash at the polls in 2018 and 2020 than we saw during what’s known as the Year of the Woman. The massive women’s marches on the Saturday after President Trump’s inauguration were a harbinger of bigger things to come.” And Scher wrote: “Outrage alone is not going to produce another Year of the Woman. One woman will need to have ample reservoirs of charisma and guile in order to crush her opposition. And any man with a burning presidential ambition who wishes to prevent that from happening will have to, in perhaps cruel irony, prove beyond a doubt his feminist bona fides.”
How this looks now: Fingers crossed.