2018 Is the Second ‘Year of the Woman:’ An Oral History of the Women Who Gave Rise to the First
The biggest story of the 2018 midterm elections—now just one week away—is the unprecedented number of women running for office. As of September, Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics found that 256 female candidates had qualified for ballots in House and Senate races, a new record that’s earned this cycle the “Year of the Woman” moniker.
But while this wave of female candidates has captured America’s attention, it’s actually the second election year to earn the sobriquet. The first was in 1992 when 28 women were elected to Congress, nearly doubling the number of women in the House of Representatives and bringing the total of female senators from two to six. (Notably, it was also the year President Bill Clinton was elected.)
That first “Year of the Woman” wave was triggered, for many of the 1992 candidates, by a single, indelible event: Anita Hill’s 1991 appearance at the confirmation hearing of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Hill testified before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee for three days, laying out allegations of Thomas’s workplace harassment in excruciating detail. Senators asked Hill to repeat herself, suggested she was mentally unstable, and failed to call other women whose testimony might have supported hers. Many of the women who watched the hearings were outraged, and some decided to do something about it. The following year, 11 women—10 Democrats and one Republican—ran for the Senate. One hundred and six women—70 Democrats and 36 Republicans—ran for the House as major party nominees.
As we prepare to learn whether 2018 will truly be remembered as the Year of the Woman, Part 2, Fortune spoke to a dozen women who helped define the 1992 cycle—including 10 women who ran for Congress for the first time that year (bios of each appear at the end of the story.) In separate interviews, they reflected on their experiences on the campaign trail, their legislative legacy, and the connections they see between 1992 and the present moment. Here, in their own words, is what they told us:
Why they ran
Sen. Patty Murray (D–Wash.): I was sitting with my daughter on a Saturday morning watching the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and I was so offended by what I saw as an all-male Senate grilling her, treating her badly, not taking her seriously. They were just tone-deaf about how they should proceed and what they should say. I went to a party that night with some friends of mine and I just said, “I’m going to have to run for the U.S. Senate.” And now I’m here.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D–Calif.): 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.
Former Rep. Eva Clayton (D–N.C.): With Anita Hill being a woman and black, it inspired me that I too could do it. The possibility Anita Hill gave to me as a candidate—I ran in a field of five men. There were six good candidates, but I happened to be the best. Anita Hill affected a lot of people, and she certainly motivated me to be an even stronger candidate.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D–N.Y.): When the [Supreme Court Planned Parenthood v. Casey] decision came down, they were chipping away at the pillars of Roe v. Wade. I remember, I was standing down at City Hall with some of the greats: Geraldine Ferraro, Elizabeth Holtzman, former congresswoman, Bella Abzug, we were sitting there with a fax machine. I called my husband and said, “I’m going to go out there and announce for Congress.” I just went out. Anita Hill was already out there, and it had contributed to it.
Former Rep. Deborah Pryce (R–Ohio): If I ever experienced bullying in my career this was definitely an example of it: A fellow lawyer strongly, strongly discouraged me from throwing my name out there for a probate judgeship that was coming open; that there was someone else already lined up … so I didn’t pursue that. For the next few years, I always regretted it… When my [House] predecessor got caught up in the Check Scandal and decided to not run again, it was a last-minute race to see who’d receive the nomination. Because of the prior incident, I was just kinda fed up and decided I would give it a shot.
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Former Rep. Marjorie Margolies (D–Pa.): A group of women came to me and said, “You should run.” I never thought I would win. My district was the kind of district that always ran [a Democrat] who couldn’t win. I only won by a thousand votes—actually 1,063, but who’s counting.
Maloney: In our country, if you don’t like something and you’re angry enough, you can do something about it. I could run and make a statement. I didn’t intend to win. I didn’t think I had a chance. I was going against a 14-year Republican incumbent.
Eshoo: I think women’s response in that year was a response to the accumulation of indignities that American women faced.
In 1992, there were a record number of open seats, according to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, who was already tracking women running for office at the time. Redistricting, the House banking scandal mentioned by Pryce, and the House Post Office scandal—both of which forced some representatives to take early retirements—left House seats up for grabs. At the same time, women had been steadily increasing their presence in state legislatures—meaning many were ready to jump to the national level when the opportunity arose.
On their campaigns
Former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D–Ill.): Because Illinois’ primary was first, once I won my primary, campaigns of other women across the country got a significant boost—I won and people started to see that it was possible. If this black woman can be elected in Illinois, which is a bellwether state, why not my person in California, Pennsylvania, you name it?
Clayton: I knew I was running in an all men’s sport—there wasn’t no doubt about that. They thought a man was going to represent the district. Well, Eva Clayton represented the district.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–Fla.): [I was first elected in 1989, but] in 1992, I had a female opponent on the Democratic Party. Her name was Magda Montiel Davis. There were two women running, she was running and I was running, so either way the voters would get a female member of Congress.
Maloney: When I ran, women would run up to me and practically throw their arms around me thanking me for running because it was very rare then to have women running. They were so relieved that someone was finally talking about the harassment and assault that they experienced in the workplace.
Clayton: I felt a surge of women coming to support me particularly, even in the primaries. I did not win the largest number of votes in the primary—that was Walter Jones, the son of the deceased congressman [in my special election], but in the runoff, boy, did women come out.
Patti Garamendi (a Democratic candidate for California’s 11th district in 1992; she lost): There was a bonding during that time that I don’t think has ever been replicated. We really worked together around the nation. Those women, we do look back and we do talk about it.
Sexism on the campaign trail
Maloney: When I ran for Congress, absolutely everyone told me not to, because it wasn’t my turn, I was taking a man’s spot, that I had children and I should not leave my children, I had to be home with my husband and children, that I would never be able to unseat my opponent.
Cathey Steinberg (Democratic candidate for Georgia’s 4th district in 1992; she lost): Someone wrote an article about all the money I raised like it was a negative, when we were always saying in those days how important it was for women to raise money.
Murray: I had people tell me I should not run as Patty because people would know I was a woman—I should run as Pat.
Garamendi: Wives of the other candidates were sending out letters saying, “I would never leave my husband and my children.” It was very much personal. To have mailers to other women making these charges, it was very mean. I can’t even talk about it.
Eshoo: I recall speaking at one of the local—I believe it was a rotary club meeting. 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.” I was very surprised, but there was a couple seconds of silence, but everyone in the room applauded.
Anita Perez Ferguson (Democratic candidate for California’s 23rd district in 1992; she lost): I was the first Latina in the state of California to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, and that caused a fair amount of friction from my opponent, regarding my heritage and background. It was very difficult to face and overcome that type of criticism. It’s kind of, to use a non-academic term, a double whammy.
Eshoo: 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.
What they thought of the ‘Year of the Woman’ label
Eshoo: I say tongue in cheek, it was called the year of the woman. In many ways, the tone of it was, “This is just for one year.”
Ros-Lehtinen: It seems like we’ve used that tagline, Year of the Woman, for many a year. I was very happy to see more women running for office because when I got here in 1989 there were only 31 women in both the House and the Senate combined. Out of 535, there were 31 women.
Murray: It was almost laughable. It’s hard to tell people that six [in the Senate] is huge. But it was a very important first step.
Margolies: We figured it out then that if we continued to elect women the way we had been, we’d be equally represented in like 431 years, but when we got this bubble; this surge, the numbers changed and we did think we’d be equally represented a little bit sooner.
Pryce: It turned out to be the Year of the Woman; it was really the year of the Democratic woman, however; there were only three Republican women elected that year.
Their experience in Congress
Eshoo: 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.
Murray: I know the men in the Senate were like, “Oh my gosh, how do we deal with these women?”—and one of the things we wanted to show was that we were just like them. We had constituents we cared about, issues we cared about, we were passionate, and we were going to participate fully as United States senators.
Margolies: The women—almost all of them—when they’d walk into the Capitol—some of the guards knew—but often were asked to show identification because [some guards] certainly didn’t think they were members.
Pryce: I was elected president of our Republican freshman class and I just remember how difficult that was to corral all these folks … to take suggestions or demands to leadership. But I contrast that to when all the women members met for the first time together on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike, how quickly and easily we came to decisions and resolutions. To this day it just amazes me how the process was so much easier when it was just us.
What happened next
After the 1992 elections, women still made up only 10% of Congress. And the elections that followed did not keep pace with the leaps made that year. “We’ve never seen an increase like that,” Walsh of Rutgers says. “It would have been naïve to think that by simply getting women making up 10% of Congress, that suddenly Congress would transform itself. It would have been an unreal expectation for those women.”
Moseley-Braun: [After 1992] there was … not a backlash, but kind of a retrenchment. The retrenchment happened for several specific reasons—not the least of which was the fact that now people were beginning to focus in on the fact that women could actually win these elections. They got a little bit more down and dirty. They got a little bit more competitive.
Garamendi: Some that [were elected in 1992], two years later in the midterms, they took some tough votes as women do. Women do the right thing, they don’t protect themselves. A lot of them only had one term.
Margolies: Coming from marginal districts as many of us did … a third of the women lost [in the next election].  was a weird year, it was the year of Newt [Gingrich] and the Contract with America.
Maloney: It’s been a steady group of women running for Congress and winning. You just keep working.
Connections between 1992 and 2018
In 2018, 53 women ran for the Senate, with 23 making it to the general election on Nov. 6. A record 476 women ran for the House, 237 of whom will be on the ballot on Election Day. The majority of these female candidates are Democrats—185 in House contests versus 52 Republicans. In Senate races, there are 15 Democratic women and eight female Republicans. The sheer number of women running earned the 2018 midterms the “Year of the Woman” label early in the election cycle. While there are clear differences—this year’s is a midterm election compared to 1992’s general—the parallels became difficult to ignore in late September when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that echoed Anita Hill’s 27 years earlier.
Moseley-Braun: [Kavanaugh’s confirmation] is water under the bridge on the one hand. But on the other hand, if it inspired women to become emboldened enough to get out there and be candidates, and inspires victims of domestic or sexual abuse to be heard—if it does that it will have done some good.
Eshoo: Dr. 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.
Moseley-Braun: I’m hopeful that the retrenchment [that happened after 1992] is over. I always maintained that it was not going to be possible to go backwards. Once we got to the point of believing that we had a voice and that voice should be used in government, we were perfecting democracy—not to be too high-flown about this, but that’s really what’s at the base of this. Before, you had a democracy in which half the population did not really have its own voice, had to be heard through the voices of the men in their lives and that changed.
Eshoo: 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.
Maloney: Women are angry and one of the biggest differences is that we’re better organized now. We have a record number of women running because organizations such as the Feminist Majority, EMILY’s List, NOW, all of them are getting women out there.
Ros-Lehtinen: It’s the same type of enthusiasm in ’92 as there is now, and I think the numbers are going to go up incredibly fast in this election cycle. No one will vote for you because you’re a woman and no one will vote against you because you’re a woman. Issues matter and candidates matter. The more women that we elect, the more people will say, “How interesting that you’re a woman, so what? What do you stand for? Do you want to raise my taxes?”
Garamendi: We had EMILY’s List, but that was just the beginning of EMILY’s List. Now I think it’s across the board. Everybody’s helping women now. It’s not just women-only organizations.
Eshoo: 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.
Maloney: ’92 was the so-called Year of the Woman, and I’d say 2018 is the decade of the woman. Women, I predict, will come out in droves to vote for like-minded candidates and many of those candidates are women.
Margolies: I think the undertow, the conversation is very much the same as it was in 1992. But, I think things have changed. Back then, young girls were still being told to be teachers, to be nurses. Now, you’re seeing young girls, especially in regards to gun control and everything, step up to the plate and say, “This is going to be our conversation, and let us tell you what the tone of the conversation is; this is what’s going to happen.”
Their advice for women running in 2018
Eshoo: 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.
Perez Ferguson: Go full out in terms of involving communities in voter registration and turnout. No matter how the final count goes, if you have excited new voters and moved them to the polls, that is a strength within itself.
Moseley-Braun: Just keep focusing in on the job you’re asking people to give you, because that’s what an election is: it’s a job interview. Focus in on that. Let the fact that you are a female or black or Muslim or whatever—let that just be in the water.
Murray: Go out and speak about what you’re passionate about because you will find that other people feel the same. Oftentimes women might think they don’t know the issue enough or that they’re out on a limb by themselves, and that is just so not true. What you’re saying is echoed by many other women and they want to hear that voice. And by the way, so do a lot of men.
Pryce: You have to have a sense of perspective. Washington has a real way of diverting you into a really crazy power game and you should always realize who you are and why you’re there, who you represent, what your real job is.
Eshoo: The closer women get to being a third of the Congress, the more likely we can change the culture of the institution and also what it produces.
Clayton: Run as hard as you can. Run knowing that unfortunately you have to be better at your game than others because you don’t get any breaks. Run with the knowledge that you are as good as any other person. Women, we too sing America.
Garamendi: I was part of the first group breaking the glass ceiling. You can see the scars on our heads.
Editor’s note: All interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eva Clayton: Elected in a special election in November 1992, Clayton was the first African-American woman to represent North Carolina in Congress and the first African-American to represent the state since 1901. Clayton served on agriculture and small business committees while in Congress and was in office from 1992 to 2003, when she retired. An activist in the civil rights movement, she first ran for Congress in 1968.
Anna Eshoo: First elected to Congress in 1992, Eshoo represents California’s 18th Congressional district. Since 1995, she has served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and was the first woman to serve in a leadership role on the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology as ranking member. Before joining Congress, Eshoo served for 10 years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in California.
Patti Garamendi: Garamendi ran for Congress in 1992 as the Democratic nominee for California’s 11th district. She lost that race to her Republican opponent 47.6% to 45.6%, but went on to serve as associate director of the Peace Corps, deputy administrator for the Foreign Agricultural Service’s International Cooperation and Development program area, vice-chair of the Committee on World Food Security of the Food and Agricultural Organization, and the U.S. Government’s national food security coordinator. Garamendi is now involved in politics through the office of her husband, John Garamendi, a congressman representing California’s third district.
Carolyn Maloney: Maloney was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992. In Congress, Maloney is now a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, a senior member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and House ranking member of the Joint Economic Committee. Before serving in Congress, Maloney was a New York City councilmember—the first woman to represent her NYC district and the first woman to give birth while in city office.
Marjorie Margolies: From 1993 to 1995, Margolies represented Pennsylvania in the House. She lost her re-election battle after becoming the final vote in favor of President Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget. She ran unsuccessfully for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor in 1998, she briefly challenged U.S. Senator Rick Santorum for his seat in 1999 before withdrawing, and she sought—but failed to win—the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania’s 13th district in 2014. Her son Marc Mezvinsky is married to Chelsea Clinton.
Carol Moseley-Braun: The first-ever African-American woman senator, Moseley–Braun represented Illinois for a single term, serving from 1993 to 1999. During that time, she became the first female senator to serve on the Finance Committee. Before running for Congress, Moseley-Braun served in the Illinois state House of Representatives and as the Cook County recorder of deeds. In 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed Moseley–Braun the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa; she served until 2001. She went on to run for president of the United States and mayor of Chicago (she lost both races).
Patty Murray: A Washington state senator before she ran for national office, Murray was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992. The senior senator from Washington state has been a member of Democratic leadership since 2007 and was the first female chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee during the 112th Congress and the first female chair of the Senate Budget Committee during the 113th Congress. Murray is now the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and serving her fifth term in office.
Anita Perez Ferguson: Perez Ferguson was the Democratic nominee for California’s 23rd district in 1992 and had first run for Congress in 1990. She has served as chair of the Inter-American Foundation, appointed under President Bill Clinton, as president of the National Women’s Political Caucus and as White House Liaison to the Department of Transportation.
Deborah Pryce: Pryce served Ohio in the House from 1993 through 2008, when she did not seek re-election. During her time on Capitol Hill, she spent four years as the House Republican Conference Chairman, which made her the fourth-highest ranking member of Congress and the highest-ranking Republican woman in the history of the House. Before serving in Congress, Pryce was the presiding judge in the municipal court of Franklin County, Ohio.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the House of Representatives in 1989, the first Latina to serve in Congress. The Republican congresswoman served as chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and is now chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Before joining Congress, Ros-Lehtinen served in the Florida State House of Representatives and Florida Senate. Ros-Lehtinen is not running for reelection this year and has announced her retirement.
Cathey Steinberg: Steinberg ran for Congress in 1992 as the Democratic nominee for Georgia’s fourth district. She lost that race to her Republican opponent, 50.5% to 49.5%. Steinberg served in Georgia’s state House of Representatives from 1977 to 1989 and later in the Georgia Senate. In Georgia’s state legislature, Steinberg was the primary sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Debbie Walsh: Walsh is director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Walsh has been a member of the center’s staff, tracking American women’s participation in the political system, since 1981.
Story by Emma Hinchliffe, with additional reporting by Claire Zillman and Kristen Bellstrom.