By Michael Kranish and Matt Viser,
Sen. Joe Biden, left, stands behind a flag as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), second from right, joined by other congresswomen, speaks about the Violence Against Women Act on Capitol Hill on Feb. 24, 1993.
Three decades ago, in one of most criticized moments of his career, Joe Biden oversaw the all-male committee that heard sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Now, as Biden is days away from making good on his promise to pick a woman as his running mate, he is also seeking to complete an effort begun years ago to make amends for his stewardship of those hearings — which even Biden has said were unfair to accuser Anita Hill — and win the support of women voters crucial to his election.
Biden’s pending announcement underscores how, during his long Washington career, the 77-year-old former vice president has sometimes haltingly responded to the seismic shift toward women’s rights and protection from sexual harassment. He arrived in the Senate in the 1970s when women had a limited ability to report misconduct and now, he is seeking the presidency in the midst of the #MeToo movement.
In a personal reckoning over the issue, he has apologized for the way he has hugged and affectionately greeted women, explaining that his instinct comes from an earlier era.
As Biden highlights what his campaign website calls his “unmatched record of working for women,” an examination of his actions during the early 1990s shows how his views evolved as he took a path that was sometimes tortuous.
In that period, Biden pushed legislation to prevent violence against women — an issue that was not a party priority until he focused on it. He assured abortion rights activists that he would not interfere with a woman’s decision, despite his long-standing opposition to the procedure.
He elevated women to senior roles on the staff of the Judiciary Committee, which had held the Thomas hearings, and recruited two female senators to the committee.
Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 1992, said in an interview that Biden recognized change was needed. “Anita Hill focused the attention on the fact that there were so few women in the Senate and zero on the hearing committee,” Boxer said.
Biden also took a strong stand in early 1993 regarding his friend and fellow senator Bob Packwood, who faced multiple allegations of making unwanted advances on staffers and other women. Asked then if he would vote to expel Packwood if the allegations were proved, Biden said, “Damned right I would.”
This evolution in Biden’s approach toward issues important to women, born out of a dark moment in his career, will soon culminate in his selection of a running mate, which could be among the most significant factors in determining the fate of his bid for the presidency.
In this photo from Sept. 1991, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee huddles with Sen. Strom Thurmond, (R-S.C.), ranking Republican of the committee after a 7-7 vote on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
On the day Biden arrived in Washington in 1973 as a U.S. senator, he became part of an institution in which every senator was a man. He was 30 years old, the sixth-youngest senator in history.
At the time, female staffers were quietly advised to stay away from certain members of Congress. Some senators were known for using private elevators to accost young female staffers. But according to Biden’s former staffers, he had a unique circumstance that on most nights took him back home, and limited his exposure to the worst of the Senate’s misogynistic culture.
Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their one-year-old daughter, Naomi, had been killed in an auto crash shortly after the election, and he returned nightly to Delaware to be with his surviving children, Beau and Hunter, making him one of the few senators not to spend nights in Washington. He married his current wife, Jill, in 1977 and they had a daughter in 1981.
Biden’s first bid for the presidency, in 1988, ended disastrously when he dropped out of the primaries after revelations that he plagiarized the speech of a British politician.
Returning to Congress, he was looking for a new cause when an assailant in Montreal in 1989 killed 14 women at an engineering school on suspicion they were feminists. That led Biden to a broader examination of violence against women, and he held hearings at which victims testified about their experiences.
He introduced a bill in June 1990 that he called the Violence Against Women Act, which would enact federal penalties for various crimes against women. But the bill failed to gain traction as Republicans criticized it as federal overreach. (After it became law, the Supreme Court tossed out a key provision for just such a reason).
At the time, women’s groups were more focused on abortion rights — an issue on which they held suspicions about Biden. The senator was personally opposed to abortion, and he often voted against measures to protect abortion rights or provide federal funding.
In a letter to a constituent, Biden laid out his view: “Those of us who are opposed to abortion should not be compelled to pay for them. As you may know, I have consistently — on no fewer than 50 occasions — voted against federal funding of abortions.”
Yet Biden also repeatedly stressed that he would vote against efforts to ban abortion, and in 1992 he co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act, which was designed to protect a woman’s right to an abortion.
Biden’s effort to appeal to those on both sides of the issue failed to satisfy either group. He wrote in his 2007 autobiography, “Promises to Keep,” that his position had “earned me the distrust of some women’s groups,” as well as “the outright enmity” of antiabortion groups that felt he didn’t go far enough in his opposition.
Anita Hill testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court on Oct. 11, 1991.
Backlash against Biden
If women’s groups were skeptical of Biden, his oversight of the nationally televised Thomas hearings in October 1991 did not help him.
Anita Hill testified that Thomas had frequently sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Biden, who failed to call witnesses who supported Hill’s testimony, told ABC News last year that “Hill did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that.” Biden voted against the nomination.
At the time, there were two female senators. The backlash against Biden and his committee was so strong that female candidates announced campaigns across the country in what became known as the “Year of the Woman.”
Biden responded with one of his most significant efforts to shore up support among women. As chairman of the all-male Judiciary Committee, he acknowledged that the panel needed female representation.
Shortly after the 1992 election, he traveled to Chicago to meet with one of the newly elected senators, Carol Moseley-Braun, the first African American female senator in U.S. history. As he ate a piece of cherry pie in her apartment, Biden beseeched Moseley-Braun to become a member of the Judiciary Committee.
“You just want Anita Hill sitting on the other side of the table,” Moseley-Braun responded, meaning that Biden wanted a Black woman to sit alongside him instead of across from him at a witness table. Moseley-Braun said in an interview that she initially resisted but Biden “just kept talking” and eventually persuaded her.
CQ Roll Call/AP
Sens. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Joe Biden (D-Del.). on Nov. 13, 1993.
Biden’s recruitment of Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to the committee was both an implicit acknowledgment that he had failed to fully integrate women into his political life and a milestone he has cited ever since as part of his effort to appeal to female voters.
Moseley-Braun said Biden’s recruitment of her and Feinstein to the Judiciary Committee “was a real dramatic change from the visual he got from the Anita Hill hearing. It was all old White men. . . . It represented a great deal of progress in a very visual way with the public.”
As Biden took steps to improve his image among women, a scandal erupted. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) had been questioned before the election by Washington Post reporters about allegations that he had made uninvited sexual advances to women who worked for him.
Packwood denied the allegations, which helped assure his reelection. But after the election, he told The Post
: “I will not make an issue of any specific allegation,” and an article about the assertions reverberated for months. The Senate Ethics Committee investigated.
Rachel Gorlin, a Capitol Hill veteran who became campaign press secretary for Rep. Les AuCoin, the Oregon Democrat who had tried to unseat Packwood in 1992, said that the revelations shook Congress. “I don’t think there was any woman or any man on Capitol Hill who was not aware of the fact that the issue of sexual harassment was public and it was no longer under wraps,” Gorlin said.
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) calls for public hearings over sexual harassment allegations involving Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) in July 1995.
The allegations shocked Biden, according to his former aides. In his early years in the Senate, Biden’s office was next to Packwood’s, and the two formed a productive bipartisan relationship.
“Joe and I were quite close friends in a day when you could work across the aisle,” Packwood later told the Oregonian newspaper. Still, Biden’s aides said he was oblivious to Packwood’s alleged transgressions. Biden declined to comment for this article.
As the Packwood story dominated the news, a woman named Tara Reade, then 28, applied for and started working for Biden.
Reade last year publicly said that Biden harassed her during the eight months she worked for him. This year she added the explosive allegation that one day in the spring of 1993, Biden pushed her against a Senate hallway, put his hand under her dress and sexually assaulted her.
Several people who were close to her during that time offered some corroboration of her account, although records of a complaint she said she filed with a congressional personnel office have not surfaced.
Biden, who has strongly denied Reade’s allegation and said he has no memory of her, was known for being affectionate and gregarious. Some of those who worked for him at the time have said they witnessed the kinds of hugs and hand-holding that some women have said made them feel uncomfortable.
But Reade’s allegation shocked former Biden staffers, many of whom say they have no memory of her or any allegation and that her account was radically different from the office culture at the time.
Reade has testified in court as an expert on domestic violence. In May, some defense attorneys said they would seek to overturn convictions that relied upon testimony from Reade because she might have provided false information under oath, including overstating academic credentials.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) listens to his staff director Diana Huffman on Sept. 27, 1990. Former Biden staffers say the office culture was dominated by women in the ’90s.
Women in charge
Biden continued his efforts to put women in key jobs and pass the Violence Against Women Act.
Lisa Monaco, who worked as a low-level staffer on the Judiciary Committee from 1992 to 1994, said the office culture was dominated by women. Biden had appointed women as his staff director, chief counsel and chief crime counsel.
“Here was a group of women who were in charge. They ran the committee staff, they advised on the policy — and they had been empowered by Joe Biden,” she said. “It was very formative for me as a young woman seeing these women as my mentors.”
With new attention on sexual harassment and more female legislators in office, efforts to protect women increased significantly. In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden has called his proudest legislative accomplishment. In 1995, the Senate Ethics Committee voted to expel Packwood, which led him to resign.
Yet for Biden, some of the old ways took years to change. In 2014, he delivered a speech at the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum in which he lauded Packwood for working with him in bipartisan fashion, drawing complaints that he was praising a senator who resigned over mistreatment of female staffers.
It was not until last year, under withering criticism from Democratic groups for opposing federal funding for abortions, that Biden c
hanged his position, saying he could no longer support the funding ban because it hurt millions of women who do not have health-care coverage.
He also acknowledged that his habit of hugging women and putting his hands on their shoulders had caused discomfort. “It’s the way I’ve always been,” Biden said, vowing to be “much more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.”
Alice Crites, Beth Reinhard and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.