Anna Eshoo, the First in Congress to Hear Blasey Ford’s Story, on the ‘Year of the Woman’
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) was the first member of Congress to hear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations—the same ones the entire nation has now heard—that she was sexually assaulted by now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh when the two were in high school. Eshoo serves Blasey Ford’s district, and took the meeting with her constituent in July.
The experience placed Eshoo at the center of a political year that has become eerily similar to 1992, the year she was first elected to Congress.
Eshoo was part of the wave of women candidates for office who were compelled to run after watching Anita Hill testify to the Senate Judiciary during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
For our project “2018 Is the Second ‘Year of the Woman:’ An Oral History of the Women Who Gave Rise to the First,” Fortune spoke to a dozen women who were part of that surge, some of whom, like Eshoo, ended up serving in Congress for more than two decades.
Below is Eshoo’s full interview with Fortune:
Fortune: Why did you decide to run for office in 1992?
Rep. Eshoo: It was an exciting time in Silicon Valley, for emerging technologies. No. 2, we had moved the district from a Republican district to a toss-up in 1988. I ran in 1988 and I lost by two points, and I decided that I wanted to finish the job in 1992. I had done a great deal of policy work on health care in my county where I served for a decade as a member of the San Mateo County board of supervisors, and I knew I could do more in Congress. And of course, that year, 1992, Anita Hill was an added incentive.
Do any instances of sexism or bias on the campaign trail at the time stand out?
I recall speaking at one of the local, I believe it was a rotary club meeting, and I spoke and then it was time to take questions, and there was a man in the back of the room whose arm shot up before anyone else’s, and his question was the following: “Do you think you are better because you are a woman?” My response was, “No, I don’t think I’m better, but I would bring a different experience to the Congress. I’m a mother, I know how important healthcare was before my children were born, prenatal care, I understand very, very well what it takes to raise children, to run a home.” Those are experiences that I think, I said at that time, should be at the public table. Because they are the issues that families deal with all over the country. I was very surprised, but there was a couple seconds of silence, but everyone in the room applauded. That stands out to me.
How does that compare to any experiences of sexism or bias you have now?
There are so many issues that women have brought to the public table. There are good men in Congress. But when women run they run on these issues. They know firsthand that they are the first educators of their children. They know that education represents a golden key to their children’s future. They know what it means to be held back by a minimum wage that is truly minimum.
At that time, in 1992, I think women’s response in that year was a response to the accumulation of indignities that American women faced. One of them I learned of in my first term in meeting with breast cancer survivors, and they all had insurance, but insurance companies considered reconstructive surgery as cosmetic surgery. I wrote legislation and I got it passed through the Congress and signed into law, that is no longer the case. At that time, the NIH finally stopped doing clinical trials only on white men. Imagine still thinking that that was OK in the 1990s. There were many other what I would call slights that served to tell women that we are “less than.”
Did 1992 seem like an actual tipping point? Did the progress of women in Congress either meet or disappoint your expectations?
It was an all-male institution. You’re surrounded by men constantly, when the bells go off and you go to floor to vote, all the doors that open up onto the floor, there are hundreds of men. But it was an exciting time because there were so many women that were elected in 1992. Those numbers have changed, thank goodness, between then and now but we can’t forget that it was a banner year relative to women running for Congress and so many of them winning.
In the years after, did it feel like momentum was kept up? Or did it feel like it was just that one cycle?
I say tongue in cheek, it was called the year of the woman. In many ways, it had the ring to it or the tone of it was, this is just for one year.
What did you think of the name Year of the Woman at the time?
It was exciting. I’d never heard that term before. It was exciting to me because, and I think for so many others, because women really represented change. There’s an old saying that men go to Congress to be somebody, women go to Congress to get things done. It’s a broad generalization, but I know in all of my experiences before I was elected to the House of Representatives, in the community board work I did, so much of it was nonpartisan, but women are highly collaborative. You have to be collaborative in Congress in order to get things done. You’re only one out of 435. If you can’t build something and collaborate and see that collaboration through no matter how rocky that rode may be, because your idea, you believe, is such an important one and would benefit the people of our country, collaboration is an essential ingredient.
Do you see parallels between you and your contemporaries’ run for office at the time and women running for the first time in the 2018 midterms?
The energy and recognition that women are in this together is very similar to 1992. You saw the day after the inauguration in 2017 the single largest march of women in the history of our country. In fact, around the world. Certainly the #MeToo movement, pay disparities, the lack of women in decision-making positions in both the private and the public sectors, signal we still have much more work to do. Today’s women candidates reflect how far women have come since 1992. It’s a different profile. They’re fighter pilots, they’re business owners, they’re young moms and mayors, they have foreign policy experience, they have done work in the intelligence community. It’s a more diverse class of candidates in every way.
What advice would you offer to those women running for the first time this year?
Hold on to your values and listen well to your constituents. This work is called public service for a reason. You need to understand the people you serve and what they need. Your campaign needs to contain that. That’s just a prelude to the work that you will continue to do once you are elected. There has to be a constant conversation with your constituents. I would say to candidates, you are enough. Others will belittle you and your experience and your skills, or at least they will attempt to, but what got you to the starting line will get you across the finish line, so don’t doubt yourself.
What would you expect to see in elections after this first race of the Trump Administration and after the wider #MeToo movement?
If we’re lucky and blessed, 2018 will be another giant step forward. We’ll elect a record-breaking number of women and then we’ll go from there. The closer women get to being 1/3 of the Congress, the more likely we can change the culture of the institution and also what it produces. These new women candidates have a mission: opportunity and security for families. They’re more fervent about changing gun laws, they’re more fervent about making education accessible. They’re more fervent about protecting the environment and the treasures of our nation. Women who succeed need to identify and bring along other talented women behind them. Progress is always two steps forward and one step back, but it’s still progress. There’s a long haul to this. But it’s certainly worth the battle, because as I always say to my constituents, no matter what the challenges are that we face in our generation, no matter how difficult it is, our country is worth it.
How does Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh affect this year’s elections, compared to Anita Hill?
Dr. Blasey Ford is my constituent. She came to me in July—I’d never met her before—she told me her story. She understood very well the risks [of coming forward.] She weighed those risks, everything this involved, weighing her privacy, the consequences to herself and her family. She has demonstrated her willingness to risk these factors to present the truth. I’m grateful to her for choosing to speak out on one of the most consequential decisions in our county.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.