RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Congress is welcoming in a record number of women in January, but that's a headline with a familiar ring to it. Twenty years ago, the 1992 election year was dubbed the Year of the Woman when the number of women in the Senate jumped from two to six. One of those incoming senators back then was the California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who had already spent 10 years in the House of Representatives. We visited her office this week to talk about what has changed in 30 years.
SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: Well, I don't want overstate it. You know, it was lonely at first in the House, I will say, because there was an attitude back in the '80s that is not the attitude now. There's a very different attitude now by the men.
MARTIN: How so?
BOXER: Well, because they understand in this place we're all equal. Look, I can stop a bill as easily as they can. They need to deal with me and they need to deal with all my sisters, because any of us can stop a bill, could thwart a bill, can help them, and we're committee chairmen now. So, the one great thing about this place is at the end of the day everybody has equal power, whether you're a man or woman or what's the color of your skin.
MARTIN: You never felt slighted as a result of your gender?
BOXER: In the Senate, I didn't. In the House, I did. They would make jokes. I remember one lasting impression was in a hearing. I was very new. And I made a strong statement, and one of my male colleagues said: I want to associate myself with the congresswoman, you know, which is a formal way of saying it. But the way he said it was sort of a joke. And people laughed out there in the audience. It was so humiliating. And I went up to the chairman and I said I want that deleted, you know, from the record. It was so humiliating and unnecessary the way he said that. And then another colleague said, oh, I want to associate myself with her, too. You know, it was that kind of deal. That never happens today. And it happened then. So, I would say just looking back at my career at this point, the House was tough, it was pioneering. By the time I got to the Senate, Barbara Mikulski had shaped them up over here. And they knew they better fall in line.
MARTIN: How have legislative priorities changed at all, do you think, the more women are present on Capitol Hill?
BOXER: I think that's a critical question, and I think they have really changed. I think that, quote-unquote, "women's issues" were hardly ever discussed, and by that I mean, you know, education issues, the softer issues, clean air, clean water - a lot of those things women carried. Certainly women's health, women's right to choice, equal pay for equal work. Believe me, the agenda has changed along with the gender change because they can't be ignored.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this: you are welcoming a record number of women into these halls with the next session of Congress, but there is still a significant gender gap. There will be 20 women in the Senate.
BOXER: Twenty women, and when I came in '93, there were six.
MARTIN: That's still a small percentage. Why...
BOXER: Yeah, 20 percent.
MARTIN: ...why is that such a big gap still? Do women self-select out of politics?
BOXER: No. I don't think so. Here's what I think. If you take - if you step back and look at the arc of history, it's only almost yesterday that women got the right to vote. In 1920, it may sound like a really long time ago, but in the arc of our history, it's not. And so it takes generations. I have - there's a picture of me over on that wall in 1958. I was a senior in high school and I came to Washington for just a visit with my class. And we're sitting in front of the Capitol. I can assure you never in my wildest imagination when I was 18, 17, whatever I was in that picture, did I ever dream that I would be here. It wasn't even on the radar screen. So, it takes a while for progress. But we're in the middle of it now and I think there's no stopping it. And my own view is that not until there's, you know, 50-50 in the Senate will it - that's the goal, 50-50.
MARTIN: Is that the point where we can stop saying the Year of the Woman?
MARTIN: Senator Barbara Boxer, thanks so much for talking...
BOXER: Thanks a lot. I enjoyed it.
MARTIN: And as we were packing up to leave, Senator Boxer shared a funny story.
BOXER: When I was in the House, I was shocked to find out that women weren't allowed to use the gym. So, I thought I have just got to do something about it. And I'm known for writing parodies. So, I took the song "Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue," and I wrote words. And I got a singing group. We called ourselves the Red, White and Blues. And at one luncheon I asked permission if we could sing this song: (Singing) Exercise, glamorize, where to go, will you advise? Can't everybody use your gym? That was it. And we kept going on: equal rights, we'll wear tights, let's avoid those macho fights. And it went on. And our colleagues were hysterical laughing, and we got into the gym. So, it showed that you have to use a sense of humor, you know, and do whatever it takes.
MARTIN: That was part-time a capella singer and full-time senator from California, Barbara Boxer
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIVE FOOT TWO EYES OF BLUE")
BING CROSBY: (Singing) Five foot two eyes of blue, but, oh, what those five foot could do. Has anybody seen my gal? Turned-up nose and turned-down hose, never had another beau. Has anybody seen my gal?
MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.