Twenty-five years ago this month, a young lawyer and federal worker named Anita Hill publicly accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Hill’s allegations during Thomas’s televised confirmation hearings transfixed the nation, not only because they were graphic and controversial, but also because the Senate Judiciary Committee’s all-white, all-male composition hit female viewers like a lightning bolt.
Back then, the Democratic women’s PAC EMILY’s List was a fledgling shop with about 1,200 members and a 1990 campaign budget of just $3 million, money the group had both donated to and raised on behalf of women candidates. By the time Election Day 1992 rolled around, membership had exploded to 24,000, candidate fundraising had hit $10 million, and EMILY’s List—along with several other women’s organizations suddenly flush with cash and volunteers—helped elect five new women to the Senate and 24 to the House.
This year, EMILY’s List has already blown past its 2014 spending record of $60 million, and group founder Ellen Malcolm sees another Anita Hill moment in the making. The October 8 release of the now-infamous video that captures Donald Trump bragging about his crass assaults on women has sent female donors and volunteers flocking once again to groups such as EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood. Organizers say women—and many men—are helping them ramp up their get-out-the-vote activities at a key campaign juncture.
“Donald Trump is like a walking, talking recruitment mechanism for EMILY’s List and organizations that support women,” says Malcolm, who adds that 2016 is “going to be our biggest election cycle ever.” Planned Parenthood is also on track to spend record sums through its PAC and advocacy arms, with a $30 million election budget that doubles the $15 million spent in 2012.
“There has been an outpouring of support from our donors,” says Dierdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, the group’s super PAC. A volunteer surge since the Trump tape’s release has helped Planned Parenthood expand its door-knocking operation in Ohio alone by 126 percent, says Schifeling. The group has launched a massive grassroots canvassing operation focused on three million undecided voters in Ohio and five other battleground states: Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The group is also investing in direct mail, and digital and TV ads, but the heart of its operation is voter turnout.
The response to the Trump tape furor differs in important respects from the women’s 1992 mobilization that followed the Hill-Thomas hearings, in what came to be known as the “Year of the Woman.” (Also, of course, the year that Bill Clinton was first elected.) In this year’s election, EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, and other women’s organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and the National Organization for Women had mobilized aggressively against Trump and for Hillary Clinton, the nation’s first-ever female major party presidential nominee, well before the tape’s release.
As Malcolm puts it, the tape was just the “icing on the cake” of a campaign that has offended women—not to mention Latinos, Muslims, African Americans, and the disabled—from day one. Planned Parenthood regards Trump and his running mate, Indiana Governor and leading abortion foe Mike Pence, as a singular threat to abortion rights, women’s health and the organization itself. Trump has said he would defund Planned Parenthood and would install Supreme Court Justices who would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion. He was also quoted saying that there should be “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, though he later modified that comment.
The Trump video “has energized our base, but it hasn’t surprised our base,” says Schifeling. “It’s just a doubling down on the same person he’s always been.”
Nevertheless, the vulgar tape and the subsequent testimonials from a string of women who say they were assaulted by Trump—all compounded by the aggressive insults Trump has hurled back—have given women political organizers an irresistible opening. Trump was already under fire for calling women “pigs,” “sluts” and “dogs.” Now he faces a barrage of ads and attacks aimed specifically at his treatment of women.
The tape’s release prompted First Lady Michelle Obama to give one of the most impassioned speeches of the campaign. Planned Parenthood released an ad featuring a half-dozen young survivors of sexual assault built around the theme: “We will be the reason Donald Trump is not elected president.” EMILY’s List’s super PAC, known as Women Vote, has teamed up with the pro-Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action on a $20 million campaign aimed at millennial women. Part of its digital campaign included a satirical poll on BuzzFeed titled: “Hey Ladies: What Does Donald Trump Want to Do to You?”
Clinton now leads Trump among college educated white women by 30 points, according to polling by Monmouth University. (Since the early 1990s, the gender gap has favored Democrats by anywhere from 4 to 11 points.) On average, polls show that Clinton leads Trump by 15 percentage points among all women. Education may divide voters more than gender this year, says Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation; the college-educated favor Clinton, while non-college graduates favor Trump—though some polls show his support is collapsing even among non-college educated women. The Trump tape improved Clinton’s standing not just with women but with college-educated men.
The release of the Trump tape does not represent the singular turning point that Anita Hill’s testimony did in 1991. Today’s voters are more deeply ideologically divided, and this presidential race is complicated by multiple controversies and cross-currents. But if Clinton’s coattails help usher in a Democratic Senate, that chamber could boast as many as 24 women—another record. The circumstances are different, concedes Malcolm, but she predicts an outcome that is “just as historic as it was in 1992.”