When Barbara Boxer was running for the U.S. Senate from California last year, her No. 1 sure-fire gag line came when she stretched to the full measure of her 4-foot-11 frame and declared mischievously: "When I get to the Senate, I'm going to look Jesse Helms in the eye and tell him . . . "
Women's groups loved it, their laughter drowning out just what it was Boxer planned to tell Helms, the lanky, drawling conservative from North Carolina who stands 6 feet or taller. One could imagine a pesky gnat buzzing around a hulking giant, the two representing opposite political poles in the Senate.
Now-Sen. Barbara Boxer gleefully delivered a Helms update to the biennial conference of the National Women's Political Caucus at the Biltmore hotel on Sunday.
This time, the point of her story was that the four women senators elected in 1992 had, in fact, changed the way the U.S. Senate does business.
Boxer's anecdote dealt with the bitter three-day debate over Senate confirmation of San Francisco gay activist Roberta Achtenberg to be assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"I have to tell you, it was really an experience," Boxer said. "It was as ugly as it gets on the floor of the United States Senate. . . . Jesse Helms didn't like her sexual orientation. . . . You could feel the politics of hate and fear and divisiveness."
Achtenberg was confirmed on May 24 by a 58-31 vote. On Sunday, Boxer mimicked Helms on the Senate floor as he wagged his finger at colleagues and direly warned that "this vote will be remembered."
Indeed, Boxer added: "It will be remembered, because we stood up. We stood up--and we won."
California elected two female senators, both Democrats, last November--a first for any state. Sen. Dianne Feinstein delivered her message about the impact of women during a luncheon address Friday.
"Today, (Democrat) Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and I are the first two women to sit on the Judiciary Committee," Feinstein said. "And I am so pleased to say that the era of the all-male panel of the days of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings are gone forever."
The twin themes of the conference were a celebration of the successes of 1992, and a determination to carry the campaign forward in 1994.
The biggest political plum in 1994 for NWPC members and other female political activists is the governorship of California and the prospect of state Treasurer Kathleen Brown joining Feinstein and Boxer in the state's three highest elected offices.
NWPC President Harriett Woods said the nomination of Brown for governor by the Democratic Party next June, if it happens, "will, I think, have a terrific impact around the country in more women getting elected governor."
"As far as California is concerned, of course, I think that the importance of having a woman as governor is to demonstrate once again that women now are chief executives as well as chief legislators," added Woods, who ran a strong race for the U.S. Senate from Missouri in 1986 but lost to Sen. Christopher S. (Kit) Bond (R-Mo.).
Both Feinstein and Boxer noted that political pundits said in 1992 that California could not and would not nominate and elect two women to the Senate--the sort of comment that Brown is certain to face if she wages a formal campaign for governor next year.
"But they could, and they did," said Feinstein, the former San Francisco mayor. "We are accepted. It is our time. We are no longer token."
But Feinstein stunned some caucus members when she told them, "I hope in my lifetime to at least see women comprise 25% of the House and 15% of the Senate." That struck many as a modest goal: Boxer said she has set a goal of electing four additional female senators in 1994 alone.
Kathleen Brown was showcased at a Saturday night gala, at which she said that Feinstein, Boxer, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and others "open the doors of opportunity for each and every one of us."
Women, said Brown, have launched "a quiet revolution" that is changing the face of America.
"This movement is really about tomorrow and the people taking charge of our country again because we have been quiet and silent too long," she said.
"Our time has come. Our issues are here. The time is now. We will change the face of America and we will change the direction of America."