Barbara Boxer is currently one of the most influential liberal political figures in the country, having served in the United States Senate since 1992. Her visibility especially flows out of her vocal commitment to feminist causes.
Boxer was born on November 11, 1940, in Brooklyn to lawyer Ira R. Levy and homemaker Sophie (Silvershein) Levy, who were immigrants. After what she characterizes as a “Debbie Reynolds” type of life in the 1950s, she married Stewart Boxer in 1962 while a senior at Brooklyn College. The couple has two children. Doug, the elder, is a lawyer and an assistant deputy mayor in Los Angeles. Nicole, who works in the film business, married Hilary Rodham Clinton’s brother Tony in a White House wedding in 1995.
Boxer’s politicization was gradual. The same year she was married, a professor sexually harassed her—something she did not publicly disclose until the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings that brought her national attention. In 1962, she organized tenants in her Brooklyn apartment complex to persuade a recalcitrant landlord to make necessary improvements.
After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1962 with a major in economics, Boxer hoped to become a stockbroker in order to put her husband through law school. No firm would hire her, so she had to study for the required exam while serving as a secretary. She was then able to ply her trade on Wall Street for three years.
In 1965, the Boxers moved to Greenbrae, in Marin County, California. The war in Vietnam and the assassinations of 1968 catalyzed her politicization. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Boxer helped form a number of grassroots organizations involving education, day care, peace, and women’s empowerment.
Boxer ran for political office for the first time in 1972, losing a race for the Marin County Board of Supervisors. She became a member of the Board of Supervisors in 1977 after working as a journalist and a congressional aide. She went on to be the first female president of the Board of Supervisors in 1981 and was then elected to Congress the following year.
In her decade in the House of Representatives, Boxer specialized in feminist issues, particularly abortion rights, and in exposing waste in defense spending. Yet it was the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas that were, and are, at the heart of Boxer’s political life. Indeed, the narrative centerpiece of Boxer’s biography/political testament, Strangers in the Senate, is Boxer leading the march of seven congresswomen over to the Senate to demand a full consideration of the charges of sexual harassment against Thomas.
The Hill-Thomas hearings provided the primary context for Boxer’s election to the United States Senate in 1992 as part of the “Year of the Woman” That November, Californians elected another Jewish woman to the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, and new female senators from Illinois and Washington also joined the upper house. Domestic concerns ranging from gun control to children’s programs to environmental protection have dominated Boxer’s agenda in the Senate. She took a strong stand in favor of public hearings in the ethics case against Senator Bob Packwood, again demonstrating her commitment to feminist causes in general and making sexual harassment a visible political issue in particular.
Although she has won the Women of Achievement Award from the Anti-Defamation League and the Hannah G. Solomon Award from the National Council Of Jewish Women, Boxer does not much publicly profess her religion. Indeed, Strangers in the Senate does not refer to her Judaism at all.
In many ways a classic Marin County liberal committed to individual liberties and government action on behalf of the underprivileged, Boxer is outside the national political mainstream. Boxer’s feisty liberalism—with its strong feminist core—may stand her in good stead.
Boxer, Barbara, and Nicole Boxer. Strangers in the Senate: Politics and the New Revolution of Women in America (1994); Current Biography Yearbook (1994): 63–66; Who’s Who in American Politics, 1995–1996 (1995).