WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barbara Boxer says she never imagined how long she’d have to keep fighting to protect women and men in uniform from sexual assault.
It’s been more than 20 years since the California Democrat was elected to the Senate as an outsider pushing for change in how women were treated in the workplace and the military.
But she said the string of shocking revelations of abuses in just the past month demonstrates that the problem remains pervasive.
“These tragedies are happening every day,” Boxer said in an interview. She was one of just seven women in the 100-member Senate when she was elected in 1992. Now 72, and an influential senior lawmaker who leads two committees – Environment and Public Works, and Ethics – Boxer is among 20 women, a fifth of the chamber.
With the House of Representative now boasting 98 women among its 435 members, sexual harassment and assault could remain a front-burner concern.
“I think the women will stay focused on it,” said former Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who worked with Boxer in the 1980s when both were members of the House Armed Services Committee. “An institution really changes when you have a critical mass of women.”
With Boxer’s male colleagues, and the public in general, also taking sexual assault more seriously, she said lawmakers have the political opportunity to bring the military’s practices in line with the civilian world.
“I think, finally, we’ll put an end to what’s happening,” Boxer said. “This is a crime. That’s why it needs to be handled in the most serious fashion.”
She’s a co-sponsor, along with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, of legislation to remove oversight of sexual assault cases from the military’s command structures. Supporters believe the change will encourage victims to step forward.
Critics say that sexual assault victims fear retaliation from their superiors, who unilaterally could decide not to press forward with charges. In other cases, the commanders may be the perpetrators.
“In the military, it’s swept under the rug,” Boxer said. “Until we start holding people accountable, seriously accountable, it becomes a ho-hummer.”
The Defense Department recently estimated that the number of sexual assaults in the military had increased to 26,000 last year from 19,000 in 2010. Fewer than 4,000 were actually reported.
“This scourge must be stamped out,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told graduates at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., last weekend.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday to examine a rash of recent incidents, from an Army sergeant allegedly videotaping women at West Point to an alleged prostitution ring at Fort Hood, Texas.
“It should be an outrage to every single member of the House and Senate,” said Paula Coughlin, a former Navy pilot whose public testimony about her assault at the Navy’s infamous Tailhook convention in 1991 ended her career.
The epidemic of military sexual assaults could create a rare moment of consensus on Capitol Hill, even as both sides seem to grow more polarized on so many other concerns.
“It shows that this is an issue that transcends party lines and ideological lines,” Collins said. “We are all focusing like a laser on this issue, and we’re in positions of power where we can ensure that this issue is not dropped.”
Boxer’s drive to change the military culture grew out of personal experience with sexual harassment, and it’s been on her mind as she’s pushed for changes.
In her 1994 book, “Strangers in the Senate,” her account of the evolution of the chamber’s makeup, she recounts an incident in college when one of her professors made an unwanted advance toward her. He grabbed her and tried to kiss her. She pushed him away and ran.
“The feeling of shock, betrayal, helplessness – you don’t forget that – especially coming from someone you trust,” she said.
Her national political career began when she was one of 24 women elected to the House in 1982. Sometimes they had to do more than just speak up to be heard.
With Schroeder and five other congresswomen, she marched to the Senate in 1991 to demand that the all-male Judiciary Committee hear testimony from Anita Hill, a law professor who’d accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Ultimately, the Senate panel let Hill testify, and then voted to confirm Thomas.
“This is a longstanding concern of hers,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “She was elected during the backlash to the Anita Hill scandal.”
Boxer also became involved in congressional inquiries into the Tailhook scandal, where dozens of women and several men were sexually assaulted by Navy and Marine officers at a Las Vegas convention.
“The Tailhook scandal was so shocking,” Boxer said. “It really knocked us for a loop.”
She won her race for the Senate in 1992, dubbed by the media as “The Year of the Woman” because of the record number elected to Congress, partly driven by the issue of the treatment of women by their employers.
Along with other newly minted senators, including Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., Boxer pushed to demote retiring Adm. Frank Kelso, the Navy’s top commander at the time of the Tailhook scandal. That effort failed.
When sexual harassment allegations swirled around one of their colleagues, former Republican Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon, they pressed for an investigation. Packwood eventually resigned.
But Boxer’s pursuit of the issue got complicated when her own party’s leader was accused of sexual harassment in 1998, the same year that she faced a tough re-election fight against former California State Treasurer Matt Fong. Boxer treaded carefully when President Bill Clinton became the subject of an investigation, and subsequently an impeachment trial, over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Not only had Clinton helped Boxer raise campaign funds, they also shared family ties. Her daughter had married Hillary Clinton’s brother. In interviews at the time, Boxer insisted that she hadn’t stayed silent.
“I said he was wrong and I still think he was wrong,” she told the Associated Press at the time.
But Republicans hadn’t forgotten her treatment of Thomas and Packwood.
“There’s no question that there was a double standard,” said former Republican Rep. Anne Northup of Kentucky, an outspoken critic of Clinton and now a Washington consultant.
Ironically, the Republican House of Representatives’ pursuit of impeachment may have helped Boxer, as public sympathy shifted toward the president. She defeated Fong by a 10-point margin.
Pitney of Claremont McKenna College said that while it was true Boxer took a “Clinton detour,” she was hardly alone.
“If you expel politicians for inconsistency,” he said, “the Capitol would be empty.”