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Sen. Boxer: Female Politicians In ‘Middle’ Of Progress

Photo caption:

Photo by Alan Greth

Democratic Senate candidates Barbara Boxer (left) and Dianne Feinstein raise their arms in victory at an election rally in San Francisco on Nov. 4, 1992, the so-called "Year of the Woman" in politics.

Photo caption:

Photo by Carolyn Kaster

Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks during a news conference in July 2011 in Washington.

Sen. Barbara Boxer says we can finally stop using the term "Year of the Woman" once the Senate reaches a 50-50 split of men and women. "That's the goal," she says.

We're not quite there yet. But more women will be serving Congress than ever before in 2013. There will be 20 women in the Senate. When Boxer took her seat in '93, there were six -- and that was after tripling from two the term before.

So what does the California Democrat have to say about the fact that there's still a gender gap? Let's put this in perspective.

"If you step back and look at the arc of history, it's only almost yesterday that women got the right to vote," she tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "And 1920 may sound like a really long time ago, but in the arc of our history, it's not. And so, it takes generations."

Boxer points to a picture in her office from 1958. She was a senior in high school on a trip to Washington, D.C., with her class.

"I can assure you, never in my wildest imagination ... did I ever dream that I would be here. It wasn't even on the radar screen," she says. "So it takes a while for progress. But we're in the middle of it now. And I think there's no stopping it."

Boxer says she's seen change in the course of her career. Before being elected to the Senate in '92, Boxer had already spent 10 years as a representative in the House.

"Well I don't want to overstate it. It was lonely in the House, I will say, because there was an attitude back in the '80s that was not the attitude now," she says. "There's a very different attitude now, by the men. ... Because they understand in this place we're all equal."

Equal in terms of legislative muscle, she says.

"They need to deal with me, and they need to deal with all my sisters because any of us can stop a bill, can thwart a bill, can help them. And we're committee chairmen now," Boxer says. "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 a woman or what's the color of your skin."

While she says she never felt slighted as a result of her gender in the Senate, she did feel that way in the House. One joke in particular has stuck with her.

"I 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.' 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, and it was so humiliating," she says.

She asked the chairman to delete the comment from the record, and then another colleague said he wanted to "associate" himself with her, too.

Also in the House, women weren't allowed to use the gym. Boxer was shocked and decided to do something. Known for writing parodies, she took the song "Five Foot Two" and wrote new lyrics. She got a singing group together and asked permission to sing during a luncheon. The jingle went like this (you can hear Boxer sing it in the audio interview):

"Exercise, glamorize, where to go, will you advise? Can't everybody use your gym? ... Equal rights, we'll wear tights, let's avoid those macho fights."

It did the trick.

"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," she says.

Boxer calls her time in the House "tough" and "pioneering," but things were different in the Senate.

"By the time I got to the Senate, Barbara Mikulski had shaped them up over here -- and they knew they better fall in line."

Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, became the longest-serving female member of Congress in March.

Overall, Boxer says female leadership did bring with it new legislative priorities.

"I think that 'women's issues' were hardly ever discussed. And by that I mean education issues, the softer issues, clean air, clean water -- a lot of those things, women carried. Certainly women's health, women's right to choose, equal pay for equal work," she says. "Believe me, the agenda has changed along with the gender change because they can't be ignored."

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