WASHINGTON — Sen. Barbara Boxer says she never imagined how long she would have to fight to protect women and men in uniform from sexual assault.
It has been more than 20 years since the California Democrat was elected to the Senate as an outsider pushing for change in how women were treated in the workplace and the military.
But she said the string of shocking revelations of abuses in just the past month demonstrates that the problem remains pervasive.
"These tragedies are happening every day," Boxer said.
She was one of just seven women in the 100-member Senate when she was elected in 1992. Now their numbers have swelled to 20, a fifth of the chamber. With the House of Representative now boasting 98 women among its 435 members, sexual harassment and assault could remain a front-burner concern.
"I think the women will stay focused on it," said former Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who worked with Boxer in the 1980s when both were members of the House Armed Services Committee. "An institution really changes when you have a critical mass of women."
With Boxer's male colleagues, and the public in general, also taking sexual assault more seriously, she said lawmakers have the political opportunity to bring the military's practices in line with the civilian world.
"I think, finally, we'll put an end to what's happening," Boxer said. "This is a crime. That's why it needs to be handled in the most serious fashion."
She's a co-sponsor, with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, of legislation to remove oversight of sexual assault cases from the military's command structures. Supporters believe the change will encourage victims to step forward.
Critics say sexual assault victims fear retaliation from their superiors, who unilaterally could decide not to press forward with charges. In other cases, the commanders may be the perpetrators.
"In the military, it's swept under the rug," Boxer said. "Until we start holding people accountable, seriously accountable, it becomes a ho-hummer."
The Defense Department recently estimated that the number of sexual assaults in the military had risen to 26,000 last year from 19,000 in 2010. Fewer than 4,000 were actually reported.
"This scourge must be stamped out," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told graduates at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., last weekend.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday to examine recent incidents, from an Army sergeant allegedly videotaping women at West Point to an alleged prostitution ring at Fort Hood, Texas.
Boxer's drive to change the military culture grew out of personal experience with sexual harassment. In her 1994 book, Strangers in the Senate, her account of the evolution of the chamber's makeup, she recounts an incident in college when one of her professors made an unwanted advance toward her. He grabbed her and tried to kiss her. She pushed him away and ran.
Her national political career began when she was one of 24 women elected to the House in 1982. Sometimes they had to do more than just speak up to be heard.
With Schroeder and five other women in Congress, she marched to the Senate in 1991 to demand that the all-male Judiciary Committee hear testimony from Anita Hill, a law professor who had accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Ultimately, the Senate panel let Hill testify, and then voted to confirm Thomas.