Boxer recounts conflict and camaraderie of Senate career

By Tiffany Stecker | 06/07/2016 07:53 AM EDT

Barbara Boxer: talk show host, syndicated columnist and teacher.

Barbara Boxer: talk show host, syndicated columnist and teacher.

Those are just a few possibilities for the next incarnation of California’s junior Democratic senator and the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who will retire this year after more than three decades in Congress.

But her main objective for after she leaves office is to get more Democrats elected to the upper chamber, she told the crowd of about 160 last night at the Sixth & I synagogue in Washington, D.C.


"I want to keep helping those running for the United States Senate," she said, after a night of readings, songs and recollections spanning her period in both chambers — with anecdotes ranging from aerobics class with a handful of female senators to an emotional retelling of her first experience with segregation in the 1950s South.

Her upbringing in Brooklyn, N.Y., set the stage for her persistence in politics — or "The Art of Tough," as her recent memoir is titled. That grit began to show early in her childhood. A pivotal moment, she recalled, was when, as a child, she tried to yield her seat on her bus to an elderly black woman in Florida. The woman refused, and Boxer’s mother gave her daughter her first lesson in racial inequality. She took her to the back of the bus, to stand holding onto the pole.

"She didn’t know that single gesture on that bus would mold me," Boxer said, her voice quaking with emotion. That experience led her to meet Rosa Parks and co-sponsor a bill commemorating the first black Major League Baseball player, Jackie Robinson.

Barbara Boxer
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) poses with a fan at her book signing. | Photo by Tiffany Stecker.

It also fueled her defense of Anita Hill, the attorney who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991, before his confirmation to the high court. Boxer pointed to a photo in the book of her and five other congresswomen running up the steps of the Capitol to ask that Hill testify in the hearings to confirm Thomas.

"I blame myself for Clarence Thomas," said Boxer. At the time, she didn’t follow the behind-the-scenes dynamics that helped propel the Senate’s vote to confirm Thomas, she said.

Boxer also highlighted her tenacity in a more humorous light. She recalled her efforts to allow fellow female legislators to use the House gym, which was reserved for men only when she arrived. She organized an aerobics class with several other female lawmakers.

"Geraldine Ferraro looked like she could be on the cover of Vogue," Boxer said of the late congresswoman from New York. "Olympia Snowe even had her pearls on," she added, of the former Republican senator from Maine.

During the class, the instructor asked the sweaty participants to put their hands on their hips.

"If I could find my hips, I wouldn’t be here," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), according to Boxer.

It was the fight for the use of the men’s gym that inspired Boxer to write "Can’t Everybody Use Your Gym?" to the tune of the 1920s ditty "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?"

"Exercise, glamorize, where to go, will you advise? Can’t everybody use your gym? Equal rights, we’ll wear tights, Let’s avoid these macho fights, Can’t everybody use your gym? We’re not slim, we’re not trim, Can’t we make it hers and him? Can’t everybody use your gym?"

Though Boxer mentions her counterpart on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), in her book, she didn’t mention him in her talk.

"I’m sure you are wondering how Jim could be my friend, but he is. He and I know that we come from different planets when it comes to climate change, and we embrace the debate. But on other issues that come before the committee, such as rebuilding our infrastructure, we work very well together, and most important, never undermine each other or use tricky parliamentary maneuvers to prevent an open discussion," she wrote.

She hasn’t written a song about Inhofe, she said, but she has written one on climate change. The title: "It Ain’t Easy Being Green."