Barbara Boxer earned a reputation as a powerful voice for liberal causes by leading the charge on issues like sexual harassment, the Iraq War, and marriage equality. Boxer majored in economics and put her husband through law school by working as a stockbroker before the Vietnam War and the 1968 assassinations convinced her to turn her energy to forming grassroots organizations for peace, education, and women’s rights. Elected to the Senate in 1993, Boxer took strong stances on gun control and environmental issues. She served on the Senate committees for science and technology, the environment, foreign relations, and ethics, among others, and retired in 2017.
Barbara Sue Levy Boxer served four terms as United States senator from California, from 1993 to 2017. She ultimately became one of the most influential liberal political figures in the country. Boxer’s progressive agenda flowed above all out of an active and vocal commitment to feminist causes.
Early LIfe and Family
Boxer was born on November 11, 1940, in Brooklyn to lawyer Ira R. Levy and homemaker Sophie (Silvershein) Levy, who were immigrants. She attended public schools, graduating from Brooklyn’s Wingate High School. 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 have two children. Doug, the elder, is a lawyer active in California civic and political affairs. Nicole is a documentary filmmaker. In 1994, Nicole married Hillary Rodham Clinton’s brother Tony in a White House wedding; that marriage ended in divorce, and she is re-married.
Boxer’s politicization was gradual. The same year she 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, however, 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 1968 political assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy catalyzed her politicization. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Boxer helped form, and participated in, a number of grassroots organizations involving education, day care, peace, and women’s empowerment.
Early Political Office
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 to Representative John Burton (who ultimately endorsed her for his seat upon his retirement from the House). Boxer 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 reproductive rights, and in exposing waste in defense spending. Yet it was the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, where an all-white, all-male, panel of senators (including Joe Biden, chair of the Judiciary Committee) mercilessly grilled Anita Hill, that became the fulcrum 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, making this the first time that any state had been represented by two women in the upper house of Congress. At the same time, new female senators from Illinois and Washington also joined the upper house. Boxer won a three-way race to garner the Democratic nomination and then defeated conservative television commentator Bruce Herschensohn by a margin of 48 to 43 percent. Although many predicted that she would be a one-term senator, Boxer won her subsequent three races fairly comfortably, against state treasurer Matt Fong, secretary of state Bill Jones, and former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina. Kamala Harris succeeded to Boxer’s seat in the Senate.
Boxer made her legislative mark in the Senate by forcefully advocating for a wide range of liberal issues, ranging from gun control to the expansion of government programs for children, from environmental protection to the battle against sexual harassment. She served on a wide variety of committees, with her longest tenure on the Foreign Relations committee. (Boxer was an early opponent of U.S. military intervention in Iraq.) Becoming chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works committee in 2007, she continued in that role for eight years. During the same period, she also chaired the Senate Ethics Committee. Despite heightened partisan polarization, Boxer was able to develop productive working relationships across the aisle, especially in the realm of infrastructure and water resources. At the same time, she pushed climate change policies, especially cap-and-trade bills, that angered Republicans.
Boxer’s other major achievements as a legislator involved support for funding for national and global efforts to aid those who are HIV+, more expansive mental health care services for female veterans, and retrofitting bridges for earthquakes. She helped add more than a million acres to the rolls for wildness protection and fought hard to eliminate the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in relation to LGBTQ troops. Boxer also sought to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel and was, more generally, an advocate of so-called diplomatic “soft power” as, eventually, the senior member of the Foreign Relations committee. Shortly before leaving office, she introduced legislation to abolish the Electoral College. Boxer also worked her way up the Democratic leadership chain, ultimately becoming Chief Deputy Whip.
While in the Senate, Boxer co-wrote two political novels, A Time to Run (2005) and Blind Trust 2009). Just before she retired, she published a memoir, The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life (2016).
After the Senate
After retiring from the Senate, Boxer became involved in various political causes and supported a wide range of liberal candidates. More controversially, she began representing corporations. Employed by the ride-share company Lyft, she unsuccessfully fought against state legislation that would have made it harder for such “gig economy” businesses to categorize their workers as independent employees instead of employees who had more economic and legal rights. Boxer then supported the 2020 voters’ initiative, Proposition 22, that overturned that legislation. Such seemingly pro-corporate activity earned her the scorn of increasingly vocal left-wing progressives in Congress, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Similar criticism followed when Boxer took on the position of co-chairwoman at Mercury Public Affairs, an influential bipartisan lobbying firm with strong connections to many larger corporations and foreign governments.
Boxer has not professed or discussed her religion much in public. Indeed, Strangers in the Senate does not refer to her Judaism at all.
Boxer came to the U.S. Senate in many ways as a classic Marin County liberal committed to individual liberties and government action on behalf of the underprivileged. Initially outside the national political mainstream, and not expected to become a powerful figure in Washington, D.C., she instead became one of the central figures in the Democratic Party during the Obama era. Boxer was, perhaps most significantly, responsible for making feminism respectable—if not always fully respected—at the highest levels of national politics.
“Barbara Boxer.” U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art, and Archives. N.d., https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/9704.
Boxer, Barbara, and Nicole Boxer. Strangers in the Senate: Politics and the New Revolution of Women in America. Washington, D.C.: National Press Books, 1993.
“Boxer, Barbara.” Current Biography Yearbook (1994): 63–66.
“Boxer, Barbara.” Who’s Who in American Politics, 1995–1996. (1995)
Meyer, Theodoric. “Barbara Boxer Joins D.C. Lobbying Firm.” Politico, January 7, 2020.