I remember the exact moment I decided to run for the United States Senate. I had recently been elected to the State Senate in my home state of Washington and was very focused on local and state issues — especially education — and to be honest, I wasn’t really paying much attention at the time to what was happening over in the other Washington.
The year was 1991. George H.W. Bush was president, and Clarence Thomas, who was then a federal judge, had been nominated to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was retiring. We all know what happened next: I vividly remember watching Anita Hill testify in October of that year about her experiences working with Thomas at the United States Department of Education. A detail I will never forget is my daughter sitting next to me as we watched it together on television. I remember feeling truly shocked and horrified at the way Professor Hill was treated by the all-male Judiciary Committee. Here was a woman who had come forward to be honest and open about her experience of being sexually harassed — and instead of being listened to and respected, she was treated like she was on trial. She was grilled, cross-examined, attacked, undermined, disrespected, and ultimately ignored. It was disgusting.
I went to a dinner the night after the hearings with some friends, and we talked about how horribly Professor Hill had been treated and how terrible it was that not a single one of the senators in that room sounded like us, thought like us, looked like us, or asked the questions we would have asked. I said to my friends, without having given it any thought or really knowing what it would mean, “well, I guess if I want something to change, I’m just going to have to run for the Senate myself!” And we all laughed, but in that moment a small part of me knew I was actually serious.
At the time, there was a powerful incumbent Senator in my own party who everyone thought was guaranteed to win re-election. Outside of my local district, I was virtually unknown. Neither I nor any of my friends knew what it meant to actually run a Senate campaign. But after we stopped laughing, we talked about it some more. We reached out to more of our friends and neighbors, and we got to work.
In February of 1992, seven months before the primary, I was at 3% in the polls. Nobody thought I had a shot. I was told that I should call myself “Pat Murray” so people wouldn’t know my gender. I was told that I needed to change the way I sounded, change the way I looked, change my positions, and more. But I ignored all that and I kept on working. I kept talking about how I thought we needed someone in the Senate who thought like us. And against all odds, I not only won my primary, I then won the general election and a seat in the United States Senate.
They called 1992, the year I won, the “Year of the Woman” because the number of women in the Senate jumped from two to six, and in the House it went from 33 to 55. The anger and energy of women across the country, many of whom were also driven by the Anita Hill hearings, so clearly made a difference at the polls.
And so flash-forward to a full 27 years later, and you can imagine how deeply disappointed I was to see it all happen the same way again. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward to share her experience was attacked, mocked, and ignored — while the well-connected male nominee was protected, defended, and advanced by the all-male Republican side of the Judiciary Committee, the President of the United States, Republican leaders, and ultimately a slim majority of the United States Senate.
These recent events have left me saddened, as angry as I’ve been in a very long time, and deeply worried. It has left me very concerned about the message that was sent to women and girls, as well as to men and boys. But what it hasn’t done is cause me to give up. If anything it just reminds me that we didn’t give up in 1992, and so we can’t give up now.
Don’t think that you can’t make a difference, that your voice doesn’t matter, or that you don’t have a chance — you can, it does, and you absolutely do.
Sen. Patty Murray
What I have taken away from the past few weeks is not that I was wrong or naïve when I decided to run for office to prevent another fiasco like the one I watched on television all those years ago — I don’t believe I was. And it’s not that the work we’ve done over the past 27 years hasn’t made a difference — because I absolutely believe it has. But the lesson I have taken is that we’re not there yet and that we need more help to get the job done.
The good news is that this time around, we’re already on it. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court came at a time during an election year when a historic number of first-time female candidates were already hard at work alongside so many others who are deeply engaged and ready for change. Some of them, I would wager, have been told to change their names, their looks, and their positions. Many of them, I’m fairly certain, have been told they’re"crazy" for even trying. But I’m happy to see they’re not listening.
When the men on the Judiciary Committee back in 1991 acted the way they did, I don’t think they realized this would lead to a “Year of the Woman” and push someone like me to get angry enough to work hard and join them just a year later. And I am very confident that the men who put Justice Kavanaugh on the bench and treated Dr. Ford the way they did are going to be pretty unhappy when they realize that the wave coming their way now is going to make the first Year of the Woman look like a ripple.
So my message to the people feeling that anger and disillusionment that I felt back then: don’t just get mad, get to work. Whether that’s running for office yourself, or supporting someone who is at the polls this November. Don’t think that you can’t make a difference, that your voice doesn’t matter, or that you don’t have a chance — you can, it does, and you absolutely do.