The Democratic View: Not a Fad, a Fancy, or a Year


Kathy Zahler


In 1991, the year I moved back to Tompkins County, Anita Hill challenged Clarence Thomas as he sat through Senate confirmation hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court. She accused him of sexual harassment. Senator Joe Biden chaired the all-male Judiciary Committee that chose to believe Thomas. Biden has recently suggested that he owes Hill an apology.

There were two women in the United States Senate at that time. Spurred at least in part by Anita Hill’s testimony, four women chose to run for Senate in 1992 and won, raising the number of women in the Senate to six. The media labeled 1992 “The Year of the Woman.”

We are hearing echoes of that today, as #MeToo takes off, and women run for office in record numbers following the defeat of the first woman from a major party at the top of the ticket. Today, there are 21 women serving in the Senate—out of 50 women in all to have served since Rebecca Latimer Felton served for one day in 1922.

Here in Tompkins County, the county legislature will be 50 percent women for the first time ever. Twenty-five years ago, in the Year of the Woman, Tompkins County had four women out of 15 representatives. (There were also six Republicans out of 15, so yes, it was a different time.) Going into 2018, the Dryden, Enfield, and Newfield Town Boards have female majorities.

Last January, my daughter and I met friends and family members in Washington, D.C., and marched in the crisp sunshine with half a million other demonstrators. The Women’s March was the pleasantest march I’d ever participated in—the friendliest, the most positive and forward-thinking. Considering the underlying anger that led people there—anger that someone who bragged about his talent at sexual assault had been inaugurated the day before—it was remarkably peaceful. I thought at the time, “Something will come of this.”

I was partly right. Postcard protests, new candidacies, and a lot of political energy emerged from that day. But despite the March’s strong stands on social justice, immigration reform, healthcare, reproductive rights, anti-discrimination laws, and environmental protection, the Trump administration and its proxies have chipped away inexorably at all of these goals every hour of every day since last January.

So, it’s time to take to the streets again. This year, we hope to join the per-Sisters for Women’s Equality Rally on Jan. 20, starting at 10 a.m. at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. Information on buses from Ithaca is available here:

The women of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention did not live to see women get the vote in 1920. Lucretia Mott died in 1880, Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902. The year 1848 alone did not do the trick; one convention was not enough. National women’s rights conventions were held annually after that, in Worcester, then Syracuse, then Cleveland, in Philadelphia, then Cincinnati, and then New York. Sojourner Truth delivered her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at a women’s rights convention in Akron. Change was generational, not instantaneous. It was tedious, grueling, often disheartening, and hard-won.

Barbara Mikulski, who was elected to the United States Senate in 1986 and served there until last month, was one of the two sitting women senators who welcomed those four new colleagues in 1992. Mikulski responded tartly to the media’s designation of 1992 as “The Year of the Woman.”

“Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”
I would issue the same admonition to those who claim excitedly that 2017 was the Year of the Woman. If you put us in a box, you make us that much easier to file away.

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee consists of 20 members. Three are women. One, Dianne Feinstein, the Ranking Member, came in with the four women elected in 1992. Certainly 15 percent is better than zero, and it might even be enough to make a difference for someone like Anita Hill. It is progress. I’ve seen progress in Tompkins County since I moved back in 1991, too. I’m even glad to see that there will be two Republican women on local town boards in 2018. Republican women have been as scarce as hen’s teeth at the town and county levels.

But 15 percent is not 50.8 percent (the percentage of women in the United States), and one woman per year on the town board in Groton is not enough. One year of anger and postcards and phone calls is not enough, not now when we are working against a tide of powerful interests at the top.

It’s 2018. You’d think we’d be that More Perfect Union by now. Until we get there, let’s get back to work.
Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at


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