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.”