Barbara Boxer (born 1940) is a Democratic Senator from California.
Barbara Boxer was one of six women elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992. Representing California as a Democrat, she was part of a larger movement that swept an increased number of women into positions of power within the government. A 10-year veteran of Congress, Boxer rose through her energetic and combative style, and her fealty to the liberal causes which had first inspired her entrance into politics—feminism and environmentalism chief among them. The product of a conventional background and upbringing, Boxer was inspired by the social upheavals of the 1960s to look beyond her home and family to make her mark on the world at large.
Boxer's origins and early years gave little hint of the career she would eventually pursue. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, the child of immigrants, in 1940. Boxer later recalled a conventional and happy middle-class childhood, which included education in the local public schools. As a "child of the '50s, " Boxer wrote in her memoir, Strangers in the Senate, she wore cinch belts and layers of crinolines, as well as hoop skirts, to conform to the dictates of fashion. Nonetheless, in high school, she and a friend took on the job of coaching the boys' baseball team, an unconventional choice.
Boxer made another unconventional choice when she entered Brooklyn College in 1958 and became one of the few women at the institution to chose a major of economics, instead of education. For her minor, Boxer chose political science. She also served as a cheerleader for the Brooklyn College basketball team.
In her final year of college, at age 21, Barbara Levy married Stewart Boxer, another student, who was then 23. The two moved into a one-room efficiency apartment at the back of a building on Ocean Boulevard, paying $90 a month in rent. When the building's owner failed to provide promised amenities, such as a carpeted and painted lobby, the energetic Boxer circulated a petition in the building to pressure the landlord into fixing things up.
After graduating from college Boxer sought a job in the New York financial world to support her husband while he completed his law degree at Fordham University. She tried to enter one of the stockbroker training programs run by the big Wall Street firms, but was turned down on the basis of her sex. Boxer then took a job as a secretary, and studied for the stockbroker's exam independently. Even after she passed, Boxer was not allowed to sell securities and earn commissions, so she left her job and took a position with a firm that would allow her to do so.
Boxer was working as a stockbroker when the event that she later identified as the birth of her political consciousness took place: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. With this event, and the later political assassinations of the 1960s, Boxer began to look beyond her own private life and aspirations to address larger social issues and concerns.
In 1965 Boxer moved with her husband to northern California. The couple had been determined to own a house and raise a family, and they felt that real estate was more affordable there than in the New York metropolitan area. While her husband was completing his exams at Fordham, Boxer quit her job and relocated to San Francisco to find a house. She was seven months pregnant with her first child at the time, and gave birth to her son—two months prematurely—the day after she arrived.
Boxer and her husband soon settled in San Francisco, and their second child, a daughter, came into the family in 1967. Although Boxer later recalled that she was primarily concerned with her family life during that time, she and her husband opposed the war in Vietnam, and felt strongly enough about their position to take part in a peace march, which wound through the city to Golden Gate Park.
Also in 1967, Boxer and her husband moved to the city suburbs, buying a $40, 000 house in Marin County, north of the city. This area would later become the basis of her political constituency. The year after they had moved to Marin, Boxer witnessed the assassination of Robert Kennedy live on television, and this violent act, she later recalled, shocked her forever from her routine private life.
Joining with other women from her community, who were young, college-educated mothers like her, Boxer and her friends in the town of Greenbrae embarked on a number of social initiatives. Among their first efforts was a program called Education Corps of Marin, designed to train high school drop-outs for jobs. This program was eventually taken over by the local school system.
In addition, Boxer became involved in the environmental movement as well as in anti-war activities. In 1970 she oversaw publicity for a campaign to put a peace initiative on the ballot, which, surprisingly, carried the day. She worked for other local ballot initiatives and for progressive candidates. Marin Community Video and the Marin Alternative, a progressive, grassroots, political network, also earned her attention. At the same time Boxer devoted her energy to a number of women's and children's groups, helping to found the Kentfield After School Child Care Center, and taking part in Woman's Way, a women's support group.
On the strength of these activities, Boxer declared her candidacy for elective office for the first time in 1971. Although her husband was equally well qualified to represent the progressive environmental constituency with which the couple had become involved, he could not afford to sacrifice his lucrative law practice for the $11, 000 annual salary paid to members of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, so Barbara ran, becoming the first serious female candidate in two decades. Although Boxer won a three-way primary race, she ran into serious obstacles in her main campaign, many of which were related to her gender. Even women who worked told her of their doubts that she could care for her young children properly while holding down such a responsible position. In the final election, in November of 1972, Boxer lost by a narrow margin.
Following this defeat, Boxer re-entered the workforce. She took a position as a reporter for the Pacific Sun, becoming an associate editor of the publication from 1972 to 1974. At that time, she returned to the world of politics, as a congressional aide working for the representative from the Fifth Congressional District of California. Boxer held this post until 1976, when she ran again for the Marin County Board of Supervisors. This time, she was elected.
As a Marin County Supervisor, Boxer maintained her strong commitment to the environmental movement. She urged the closure of all nuclear power plants in the state of California, and worked for other liberal causes during her six years in the post. From 1977 to 1982, she served on the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board, of which she was the president from 1979 to 1981. Boxer was also the president of the Marin County Board of Supervisors from 1980 to 1981.
Elected to House
In the early 1980s Boxer's local congressional district, the Sixth District of California, was redrawn in a manner that helped to insure the re-election of incumbent John L. Burton, a Democrat. When Burton, a longtime friend and mentor of Boxer, chose instead to retire, Boxer ran for the seat he was vacating in the U.S. House of Representatives. She won the 1982 election as a Democrat.
Boxer took office in Washington as a freshman representative at the start of 1983, and became president of the Democratic New Members Caucus of the House of Representatives. The district Boxer went on to represent for five terms, covering ten years, included parts of the city of San Francisco, as well as Marin County, her home base. In Congress, Boxer continued to champion the liberal causes that had brought her popularity with the constituents of this area in the past. Boxer was assigned to sit on the Armed Service Committee, where she was one of the few committed liberal members, and became co-chair of the Military Reform Caucus. Boxer was also appointed to the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. In addition, she chaired the subcommittee on government activities.
In Congress Boxer made a name for herself as a staunch opponent of defense spending. She opposed the costs of stealth aircraft and the Patriot missile, pushing repeated floor amendments in the house to cut government spending for these projects. Boxer also voted against funding for the Nicaraguan contras. In addition, she lent support to the Congressional Black Caucus in its recommendation that the defense budget be cut in half.
Boxer became best known as a representative for publicizing particularly egregious cases of wasteful military spending. Posing for photographers with a $7, 622 coffee pot for a cargo plane, and a $600 toilet seat cover, she dramatized the issue of government excess, bringing public pressure to bear on efforts to reform government procurement. As a result of these efforts, Boxer was able to take partial credit for a series of military procurement reform amendments, which included a 1988 measure to protect whistle-blowers, and a measure to allow competitive bidding for contracts to provide spare parts to the military. Despite her best efforts, however, Boxer was unable to keep the Presidio, a historical military base in San Francisco, off the list of military bases to eventually be closed.
Boxer opposed the entry of the United States into the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and she sponsored an effort that would have required prior Congressional approval of covert American actions in foreign countries. This resolution, which was seen a threat to the secrecy of war plans and anti-terrorist operations, was unanimously defeated on the floor of the House, as even Boxer withdrew her support for the amendment.
As a representative Boxer also maintained her commitment to women's issues. She was an original co-sponsor of the Family and Medical Leave Act benefitting workers with children or other family responsibilities, and she put up a strong opposition to the gag rule forbidding abortion counseling at federally funded health clinics. As a supporter of the Freedom of Choice Act, Boxer sponsored an amendment to provide federal funding for abortions in cases of rape or incest, which was passed, but vetoed by President George Bush. Boxer won the respect of the powerful former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, in her fight to pass this bill, with her forthright appeal for his support of the abortion amendment.
Boxer also pursued a campaign to open up the men's club of Congress to greater participation by women. As part of this effort, she tried to win more extensive locker room facilities for female representatives, inspiring an apocryphal story about her presence in the men's locker room at an inopportune moment. The most important moment in her struggle to instill greater equality for women in the U.S. Congress, however, came during hearings to consider Clarence Thomas for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, when Boxer joined with other female representatives to bring their concerns about the treatment of Anita Hill to the attention of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The group of women was refused entrance to a meeting of this committee, after being told that "strangers" were not permitted in the room. Boxer was so incensed by the idea that she and the other female representatives were considered "strangers" in the Senate that she later wrote a book using this phrase as its title, describing the progress of women in politics in her lifetime.
Runs for Senate
The treatment of Hill at the Senate hearings proved to be a political watershed, and when California Senator Alan Cranston announced that he would relinquish his seat after being tainted in a savings and loan scandal, Boxer decided to give up her secure Congressional berth and run for the Senate as a long-shot candidate in 1992. She made the lack of female representation in the U.S. Senate a cornerstone of her campaign.
Boxer's first obstacle in her campaign for the Senate was a tough primary, with two strong male contenders who also had solid records on women's rights. With a strong fund-raising operation in place, as well as the support of groups such as EMILY's List, and the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, Boxer raised more than $2 million by the start of 1992, which allowed her to triumph in the June primary.
Boxer then went on to face Bruce Herschensohn, a conservative television commentator, in the general election. Despite her ten-year Congressional career, she cast herself as a Washington outsider, whose gender made her a gadfly to the establishment. This picture was somewhat damaged by the revelation during the campaign that she had bounced 143 checks at the U.S. House of Representatives bank. Despite this setback, Boxer relied on her ability to identify issues that voters cared about, and get her position across in a punchy and appealing manner. In a year in which more women than ever before were elected to the Senate, Boxer won her race in November of 1992, becoming, along with Dianne Feinstein, one of two women to make up the California delegation.
As a senator Boxer has continued to push the liberal agenda she supported as a representative, and she has remained sensitive to issues of importance to women. She joined the effort to pressure Senator Bob Packwood, under fire for sexual harassment, to fully disclose his actions, and she mounted a campaign, with the other five women in the Senate, to punish a Navy admiral for the Tailhook sex scandal. Boxer has worked for increased funding for breast cancer research and domestic violence programs. She also staunchly supported an openly gay San Francisco woman for a job at the Department of Health and Human Services, and she fought to end restrictions on gays in the military.
In addition, Boxer has remained true to her roots in the environmental movement. She is on the Committee on Environment and Public Works and belongs to three of its subcomittees. She battled a plan to place a radioactive dump in the California desert and pushed for the restoration of ten wetlands areas in California. Boxer has also worked hard to restore the ailing economy of her home state. In the name of California jobs, she endorsed a controversial proposal to deploy National Guard troops along the Mexican border to cut down on illegal immigration. She also supported a move to give members of the agricultural industry more time to renegotiate federal water contracts.
As the ranking member of the Subcommittee on International Finance, Boxer promotes America's competitiveness in today's global economy by lowering trade barriers and expanding exports.
In support of her pro-choice stance, Boxer cosponsored the Freedom of Choice Act and pushed for passage of both the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and the Family Medical Leave Act.
In an effort to keep in touch with the constituents of her vast state, Boxer began inviting voters to write to her, and she was soon receiving more mail than any other senator. This outpouring suggests that Boxer has done an effective job of reaching out to the voters of California. Boxer appears to be laying the groundwork for a long career in the Senate, capping her evolution into an effective feminist and liberal politician.
Further Reading on Barbara Boxer
California Journal, April 1, 1992; June 1, 1994.
Ms., March/April 1992, p. 86.
National Review, October 19, 1992, p. 21.
New York Times, October 25, 1993, p. A15.
Additional information was obtained from Senator Boxer's Home Page on the Internet.