EVEN NOW SEN. BARBARA BOXER becomes tense when she remembers that winter day in 1962. A Brooklyn College honors student at the time, she asked to meet her professor to discuss a questionable C-minus she had received on an economics course. It soon became clear that the married instructor did not have academic reappraisal on his mind. ” ‘I just find you so dynamic—you’re really my favorite,’ ” she recalls his saying. “He grabbed my shoulders and pushed me against the wall—it was so sudden! This old face was coming at me, aiming to kiss me. I pushed him aside, opened the door and ran out.” Though shaken, Boxer told no one but her husband, Stewart, of the unwanted advance. “Now,” she says, “I realize how wrong that was. I might have spared a lot of young women the experience.”
These days, no one could accuse Boxer, 54, of reticence on the issue of sexual harassment. This summer, the California Democrat has waged a campaign calling for public hearings into allegations of sexual misconduct against Sen. Robert Packwood, the Oregon Republican who has been accused of groping and kissing 17 women while in office. Late last month, after two more women, including a former teenage intern, came forward to accuse him, Packwood himself called for hearings before the Senate Ethics Committee and vowed to clear his name. Packwood, 63 this week, maintains that some of the incidents never happened and says an alcohol problem may be the reason he can’t recall his behavior—or even having met some of his accusers.
The women say they recall Packwood all too vividly. “He laid a juicy kiss on my lips,” the former intern, who was 17 at the time, told The Washington Post. “I could feel his tongue coming.” The young woman’s accusation, Boxer says, redoubled her determination to see hearings take place. “I was 21 when I was sexually harassed; she was 17—a child,” says Boxer. “It took me from being a United States senator looking for justice to a mother looking for justice.”
Her zeal in the Packwood case has prompted Packwood’s fellow Republican, Majority Leader Bob Dole, to brand Boxer “the most partisan senator I have ever known.” By keeping the heat on her colleagues, “she’s made a lot of enemies,” notes Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University. In reply, Boxer concedes that she sometimes has to be aggressive to get the attention of her colleagues in the clubby Senate, which still includes just eight women. Her speeches betray the hard cadences of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Boxer was raised, the younger of two daughters of Ira Levy, a lawyer, and his homemaker wife, Sophie. During her senior year at Brooklyn College she married Stewart Boxer, a law student. After graduating, she tried to get a job on Wall Street but found no firm willing to enroll a woman in a stockbroker-training program. So Boxer took a secretary’s job and passed the broker’s exam on her own.
In 1965 she and Stewart moved to Marin County, Calif., just north of San Francisco, after a vacation visit. There, after giving birth to son Doug and daughter Nicole, Boxer became a force in local liberal politics, working to end the Vietnam War and supporting environmental causes. Eventually she made the move from housebound organizer to candidate. “It wasn’t an easy transformation, and it certainly had to be difficult for my husband,” she often says. “He must have felt he married Debbie Reynolds and woke up with Eleanor Roosevelt!”
Elected to Congress in 1982, Boxer staked out a reputation as a high-profile opponent of wasteful military spending. During the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, she and several female House members tried to enter the Senate chambers to complain about the committee’s treatment of Anita Hill, only to be told by one senator that “strangers” were not welcome. That prompted Boxer to run, successfully, for the Senate seat vacated by the retiring Alan Cranston in 1992.
Already known as one of Bill Clinton’s closest political allies, Boxer’s ties to the White House grew stronger last year when Nicole, 27, a film executive, married Hillary Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham, a Miami political consultant. On June 9, Nicole gave birth to Zachary, Boxer’s first grandchild, and Boxer and Stewart, 57, celebrated the event with the Clintons over the July 4th holiday. (Their son Doug, 30, is an assistant deputy mayor in Los Angeles.)
Despite her success in forcing hearings, Boxer knows she will always be considered an outsider by many of her male colleagues. “There have been times I felt people were wishing I was anywhere but the U.S. Senate,” she says. “But this fight has picked up more supporters as we’ve moved along. It proves that one senator can make a huge difference.”
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington