Diane Feinstein’s legacy: Davie Davies on the ‘Year of the Woman’ – WHYY

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The death of U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) calls to mind her election to the upper House in 1992, which is remembered as the Year of the Woman. Why is it called that?

“Morning Edition” host Jennifer Lynn checked in with WHYY’s Dave Davies for a quick history lesson and a look-ahead to another possible Year of the Woman.


Jennifer Lynn: Dave, remind us what contributed to the 1992 Year of the Woman in American politics.

Dave Davies: Well, that was the year after the confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, at which Anita Hill famously accused him of sexual harassment. The Senate confirmed Thomas nonetheless, which sparked a huge wave of activism among women. You probably remember the bumper stickers that read ‘Honk if you believe Anita Hill.’ That wave led to the election of five women to the Senate, most of whom, like Feinstein, had long careers there, and more than 100 new women in the House.

JL: Barbara Boxer was among the five women sent to the U.S. Senate in 1992, coming from a congressional seat. Feinstein and Boxer were the first female pair of U.S. senators to represent any state at the same time. Pennsylvania almost elected a sixth woman to the Senate that year, didn’t it?

DD: Oh, yeah, that was a memorable race in the state’s history. Arlen Specter, the state’s Republican senator had taken the lead in those confirmation hearings trying to discredit Anita Hill. He was challenged by Lynn Yeakel, a woman from this area who headed an organization called Women’s Way. She registered near zero in the polls when she started, but she ran these ads that showed video of Specter interrogating Hill and then the ad would cut to Yeakel saying, ‘Did this make you as angry as it made me?’ and her campaign caught fire.

JL: I read Lynn Yeakel’s book “A Will and a Way,” in which she said that while she lost her campaign, she cherished the experience. Why didn’t Yeakel pull off a win?

DD: Well, she was up against a tough veteran campaigner in Arlen Specter who understood coalition politics. He made friends in the labor movement. He got the endorsement of the state’s two largest African American-owned newspapers and raised a ton of money and took advantage of Yeakel’s mistakes. Although it was a big Democratic year, Specter pulled off a three-point win.

JL: Yeakel was profiled by Specter and his campaign operatives as a well-off housewife from the suburbs who wore pearls. This was disparaging. This was sexist.

DD: Oh, yeah, and it wasn’t just what they said. They ran very tough ads taking advantage of every time Yeakel got a little tired and tongue-tied on the campaign trail. Running for office isn’t easy, it’s a big stage. Yeakel was new to it and, like any other first-time candidate, there were moments when she stumbled, and he would really go after her, portraying her in the words of some commentators as a ditz, clearly playing to sexist stereotypes, and it had an impact.

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