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Whither the Year of the Woman? : Politics: Did that slogan really mean anything? Some say no, offering the continuing shortage of women in the Senate and the closed Packwood hearings as proof.


WASHINGTON — The setting was the President's Room off the Senate floor, a quiet place of red Moroccan leather furniture, gilded chandelier and delicate gifts from the Orient displayed in a glass case.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stood with arms crossed as Sen. Barbara Boxer, a full head shorter, walked over, gently placed a hand on each of his elbows and leaned into his face.

Boxer said she had heard something: that if she persisted in seeking public hearings on the sexual misconduct charges against Oregon Republican Bob Packwood, McConnell would retaliate by investigating Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy and the 1969 incident at Chappaquiddick in which a young woman drowned.

As Boxer recalled recently, McConnell responded yes, that she had no right to interfere in ethics committee business. "I said, 'Well, are you threatening me, Mitch?' " Boxer recounted. McConnell, according to Boxer, said it wasn't a threat but a promise.

McConnell has since declined to discuss Boxer's account. But he seemed to acknowledge it nine days later from the Senate floor when he vowed to seek "action on misconduct cases in the past" if the California Democrat persisted.

The Boxer-McConnell clash in the President's Room was the scrappiest episode in the debate over the handling of allegations that Packwood made unwanted sexual advances on 17 women. She introduced an amendment that would have led to open hearings, but the Senate narrowly rejected it.

Ever since the incendiary confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, critics have tagged the Senate a fraternity of older white men insensitive to women's issues. The judiciary committee's treatment of Anita Hill triggered a backlash that put more women into Congress in 1992. It was dubbed the Year of the Woman.

But the Packwood case, politicians and political observers say, shows that in the upper trenches of power little has changed.

"The Club still lives," declares U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who has been in Congress for 21 years.

"It's very clear the Senate didn't learn very much," says Harriett Woods, departing head of the National Women's Political Caucus, a bipartisan recruiting office for women politicians. "They're repeating the same mistakes, and that is, treating sexual misconduct as less important than other types of ethics violations."

Others suggest that the Year of the Woman was really more flash than substance.

"These are all symbols," says Madeleine Stoner, a USC associate professor of social work. "These are all rhetoric. And people respond to the symbols and the rhetoric in very powerful ways. . . . That's why the Year of the Woman looked so good, because it was a major symbol that women are on their way [up in the power structure]."

The reality, she says, is that the Senate still has only eight women members, the House, 47. "It gets us only a very small place at the table," she says. "It certainly didn't translate into any kind of ultimate force and power in the case of the ethics committee and Sen. Packwood."

Karen E. Campbell, an associate sociology professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in women's issues, believes the Year of the Woman was a misnomer.

"I was happy for the attention that women candidates got and was interested, as a sociologist, in whether women were pursuing different agendas or whether they were pursuing their agendas in a different way," she says. "But I think calling it the Year of the Woman was only a way of calling attention to the fact that women are grossly underrepresented."

Four years after the Hill-Thomas hearings rocked society's view of men and women in the workplace, people may be getting desensitized, even inured, to claims of sexual misconduct among public employees, Campbell says.

"In terms of sort of public outrage, people may be tired of being outraged," she says.

The senators who rejected public hearings for Packwood deny their actions reflect a lack of sensitivity toward women. Instead, they say their goal was to preserve the autonomy of the committee.

"Being called a men's club, it's an insult, frankly," said Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), an ethics committee member.


But the heat of that accusation was felt. Shortly before the debate on Boxer's amendment, a women's advocacy group took out a large ad in the Washington Post that read: "If your boss stuck his tongue in your mouth, would he keep his job? Only in the U.S. Senate."

Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, listed from the Senate floor eight women's organizations calling for open hearings. One of them, the National Women's Political Caucus, would later demand Packwood's expulsion from the Senate.

And newspapers across the country applauded Boxer's efforts.

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