Joe Biden Is A Hero Among Women's Rights Groups. But It Wasn't Always That Way.

Many women were upset at the way he managed the Anita Hill hearings in 1991.
Vice President Joe Biden has been a leader in the fight against violence against women.
Vice President Joe Biden has been a leader in the fight against violence against women.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

WASHINGTON ― Joe Biden will leave a legacy of staunch advocacy for women’s rights when he steps down as vice president in a week. He was a leader in passing and renewing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and has been the chief advocate of the Obama administration’s national campaign to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

Those achievements, among others, were no small reason he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Thursday, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Biden touted his role in elevating the seriousness and pervasiveness of sexual harassment in a September 2015 speech, noting that his work dated as far back as 1991: “During the Clarence Thomas hearings, one of the things that emerged was the issue of sexual harassment. ... It was the thing that no one wanted to touch. I remember saying to my colleagues, ‘This is so much bigger than a single judge.’”

Advocates say Biden is now one of their strongest champions on issues of violence against women. But they remember a different, more complicated story of Thomas’ confirmation hearings, where Biden played a less heroic role. As the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991, Biden was essentially the last line of defense in Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court.

When Anita Hill, a law professor and Thomas’ former employee, described how he had harassed her by pressuring her to date him and carrying on inappropriate sexual conversations, it was Biden who had the power to make sure her allegations received the consideration they deserved. They didn’t, and Thomas remains on the court today as one of its most conservative justices.

In the years since the hearings, there has been much debate over the way Biden handled them. Even those who applaud Biden’s more recent work for women’s rights regret that he didn’t fight harder to defend Hill against the GOP onslaught. In particular, there’s still resentment over the fact that other women who could have strengthened Hill’s credibility never testified.

“In some respects, I was deeply disappointed with his performance and with the performance of every member of that Judiciary Committee at the time,” said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. “And in fact, I felt devastated by the whole process as it unfolded.”

An aide to the vice president pointed to Biden’s record on women’s rights over the years as what his legacy will be as he steps down.

“The VP has been a stalwart champion of women,” the aide said. “He is the author of one of the most important pieces of legislation aimed at helping survivors of gender-based violence: The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). He championed it from original drafting to enactment, and has been instrumental in its reauthorization ever since.”

But as his career in public office potentially draws to a close ― or at least enters a new phase ― Biden’s legacy may be best understood as an evolution, from the missteps of the Thomas hearings to his later accomplishments.

‘If That’s Sexual Harassment, Half The Senators On Capitol Hill Could Be Accused’

Even before Hill’s sexual harassment allegations became public, Thomas was a controversial choice to replace legal titan Thurgood Marshall, the first and only African-American to serve on the Supreme Court.

There were questions about Thomas’ fitness for the position and whether he truly was, as President George H.W. Bush called him, the “best qualified [nominee] at this time.” Thomas had worked in civil rights at the Department of Education for one year and then chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for eight years before Bush nominated him for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1990. Bush named him to the highest court 16 months later, on July 1, 1991.

Women’s groups expressed concern about Thomas’ weak record on women’s issues and civil rights long before they knew the name Anita Hill. But on Sept. 28, the Senate Judiciary Committee went ahead and voted 7-7 to send Thomas’ nomination to the full Senate without an endorsement.

Behind the scenes, however, there was far more going on than the public realized. Hill had worked with Thomas for two years, at both the Department of Education and the EEOC. During that time, Hill said Thomas repeatedly tried to pressure her into dating him, talked about the pornography he enjoyed watching and made other sexually explicit comments (including an infamous joke about pubic hair on a can of Coke).

Hill initially planned to stay silent about her experiences, but she started to tell friends what Thomas had done to her after the White House announced his nomination, according to Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, the authors of Strange Justice, the most in-depth look at the Thomas proceedings. Hill was not some diehard partisan who wanted to take down Thomas, but rather a reluctant witness who felt a duty to provide officials with information that might be helpful.

Word about a woman Thomas had harassed started to reach Senate aides. Eventually, it reached Biden, just days before the committee’s planned Sept. 28 vote.

According to Mayer and Abramson’s account, although Biden later said he recognized from the beginning that Hill’s accusations were “a giant incendiary bomb,” he didn’t act like they were. “[N]either he nor any other senator had spoken to Hill in an effort to draw an independent judgment about her credibility,” they wrote.

None of the Senate leaders ― including Democrat George Mitchell, the majority leader, and Republican Bob Dole, the minority leader ― saw any reason to delay the committee vote so there could be further investigation.

It wasn’t until after the vote, on Oct. 6, when the press got ahold of the story and publicly identified Hill, that the members of the all-white and all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington truly seemed to realize what they had on their hands. And even then, many senators didn’t seem to know what to do ― or thought they couldn’t stop the nomination from moving forward. Mitchell had already scheduled a vote of the full Senate for Oct. 8 at 6 p.m.

“They were pretty far along in the process and their position, as I recall it, was that it was too late,” said Kim Gandy, who was a national officer with the National Organization for Women at the time. “It was disruptive to the process and they had passed that point already, which didn’t seem like a good reason to us.”

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) may have summed up senators’ reaction to Hill’s allegations best when he reportedly declared, “If that’s sexual harassment, half the senators on Capitol Hill could be accused.”

There weren’t many women in Congress at that time ― just 29 in the House and two in the Senate ― but they were outraged that Mitchell refused to delay the vote on Thomas. They wanted Biden’s committee to reopen the hearings and allow Hill to testify.

What disturbs me as much as the allegations themselves is that the Senate appears not to take the charge of sexual harassment seriously,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who was then the only female Democratic senator.

Anita Hill is sworn in before testifying. Hill worked with Clarence Thomas and alleged that he sexually harassed her.
Anita Hill is sworn in before testifying. Hill worked with Clarence Thomas and alleged that he sexually harassed her.
Bettmann/Getty Images

On the day of the scheduled confirmation vote, a number of female House members took to the floor to deliver 60-second speeches in support of Hill. When Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) spoke out and demanded a delay on Thomas’ nomination, angry male congressmen said her words should be struck from the record and she should be censured for the day. Women across the country flooded the phone lines in the offices of Mikulski and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), the only other female senator at the time, calling for a delay.

That same day, seven female House members marched across the Capitol and demanded to talk to Mitchell, who was then in his weekly caucus meeting. The women were barred from entering, until one of Mitchell’s aides eventually came out and told them he’d talk to them.

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) was part of that historic moment, and told The Huffington Post that they also talked to Biden and demanded Hill be allowed to tell her story. That conversation didn’t go well, she said.

“He basically said we didn’t need to stay because she wasn’t going to speak,” said Slaughter. “No, it was not good. The whole thing was a bad scene.”

Under strong public pressure, Mitchell eventually convinced Republicans that without a delay, 10 Democratic senators who had previously said they would vote for Thomas would switch sides.

Biden was under pressure from Republicans as well ― primarily Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas’ chief sponsor. Biden initially wanted a two-week delay, but Danforth convinced him that fairness demanded the proceedings to move faster. Biden scheduled Hill’s testimony for Oct. 11, and agreed that the Judiciary Committee would not take another vote before sending Thomas to the full Senate on Oct. 15. He also said he would keep questions about Thomas’ general sexual conduct ― such as his interest in pornography ― out of the hearings.

“Joe bent over too far to accommodate the Republicans, who were going to get Thomas on the court come hell or high water,” Metzenbaum later told Mayer and Abramson.

Biden also handed a major victory to Republicans in agreeing to let Thomas testify both before and after Hill ― most crucially, scheduling his response to her allegations for 9 p.m. on a Friday, when millions of people were tuned in for their primetime broadcast.

Clarence Thomas was allowed to testify both before and after Anita Hill.
Clarence Thomas was allowed to testify both before and after Anita Hill.
Mark Reinstein/Getty Images

In her 1997 memoir, Hill said she felt Biden betrayed her in doing so. She wrote that three days earlier, Biden had told her over the phone that she had the “option to testify whenever I wish … first and last.”

“What I did not know was that between the phone call and the eve of the hearings, he had given the same assurances to Judge Thomas,” she wrote. “Nor had anyone informed me how long Judge Thomas might testify or when I could expect to be called.”

Biden had originally planned to have Hill close out the hearings. But he gave in to pressure from Thomas’ handlers, who threatened the Supreme Court nominee would hold a press conference saying he had been denied the opportunity to defend himself.

“I must start off with a presumption of giving the person accused the benefit of the doubt,” Biden told The New York Times two days before Hill was set to testify. “I must seek the truth and I must ask straightforward and tough questions, and in my heart I know if that woman is telling the truth it will be almost unfair to her. On the other hand, if I don’t ask legitimate questions, then I am doing a great injustice to someone who might be totally innocent. It’s a horrible dilemma because you have two lives at stake here.”

The Other Witnesses

Biden’s most divisive and perhaps most significant decision was not calling the other three women who could have strengthened Hill’s allegations against Thomas to testify. While the women’s interviews with committee staff were entered into the record, that did not have the same impact as public testimony.

One of the women was Angela Wright, who worked with Thomas at the EEOC. She said Thomas asked her about the size of her breasts, pressured her to date him, commented on the physical appearance of women in the office and showed up at her apartment one night without warning. Unlike Hill, however, Wright said she considered Thomas’ behavior obnoxious but not sexual harassment.

Wright had complained of Thomas’ unwanted behavior toward Rose Jourdain, a colleague at the EEOC at the time. As Mayer and Abramson wrote in their account of the trial, Jourdain independently remembered the “bra size” incident and also recalled Wright telling her Thomas had talked about the sexiness of her legs.

Sukari Hardnett was the third woman. She worked for Thomas at the EEOC after Hill left but said Hill’s account of his behavior rang true.

“Clarence Thomas pretends that his only behavior toward those who worked as his special assistants was as a father to children and a mentor to proteges. That simply isn’t true. If you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female,” she said in her statement, adding, “Women know when there are sexual dimensions to the attention they are receiving. And there was never any doubt about that dimension in Clarence Thomas’s office.”

Joe Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination in 1991.
Joe Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination in 1991.
Wally McNamee/Getty Images

There have been several justifications offered for not having these women testify, with no senator willing to take the blame. Biden and his supporters have pointed the finger at the rest of the committee, Hill and her legal team, and Wright personally.

Biden has maintained that he was eager to hear from Wright, but the committee voted 13-1 against calling her; he was the lone supporter, he said. One of his top aides, however, told Mayer and Abramson that that wasn’t true ― Biden, like the other senators, simply wanted the hearings to be over. Metzenbaum later said he didn’t recall such a vote and didn’t “think Biden was anxious to bring Angela Wright on.” Former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), said he also didn’t remember any senators who wanted Wright to testify.

Biden and his top staffers have also said that Hill and her legal team opposed having Wright testify, because Wright did not consider Thomas’ behavior to be harassment.

“They believed that Anita Hill’s testimony was so strong standing on its own that no matter how good anyone else was, it would be diluted,” Biden said in a 1994 interview. “It would take away from it.”

But Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who was part of Hill’s legal team, has strenuously denied this claim, calling it “absolutely, unequivocally, categorically, and positively false.”

Biden has also suggested that Wright didn’t want to testify. “[T]here’s a myth that’s grown up that we somehow denied her,” Biden recalled in a 2009 interview for Jules Witcover’s biography. “We had her in town to testify, we expected her to testify, we prepared her to testify; she chose not to testify. She had her own reasons. I don’t know exactly what they were. And people say, well, why didn’t you have her testify anyway? Well, that’s like calling a hostile witness in a case.”

Indeed, there is a letter from Biden to Wright dated Oct. 13, 1991, in which he stated it was his “preference” that she testify, but that by the “mutual agreement” of Wright and the members of the committee, she was released from the subpoena and her interviews would be put in the record instead. Wright signed the letter, acknowledging agreement with its content.

Gil Middlebrooks, Wright’s attorney, remembered a slightly more complicated version of events, as he told The Washington Post in 1994. It was true that Wright was a reluctant witness; she didn’t want to come forward, and repeatedly pointed out to Senate staffers that they had approached her, not the other way around. But Middlebrooks insisted that Wright was always willing to testify if the committee members truly wanted her to do so.

“These people didn’t want to hear from us,” Jourdain summed up to Mayer and Abramson. “Thomas’s supporters didn’t want another woman, especially one with some of the same looks, age, and brains, telling a similar story as Anita Hill. And then, on top of that, she’s got a credible backup witness. Nobody wanted to deal with this.”

Many Hill supporters also wanted testimony from an expert on sexual harassment, to lend expertise on the subject that was sorely lacking among the men on the committee. Biden said in a 1994 interview that he wanted this to happen, too.

“I wanted a panel on sexual harassment to come and testify, so we could put in context what we were talking about,” he said. “And it was decided by the Hill people that they didn’t want that panel to come on. Again, there was a feeling ― communicated to me secondhand ― that Anita Hill had won this thing. She had made her case. And I kept saying, ‘wrong, this ain’t over.’ I was very disappointed.”

Dr. Louise Fitzgerald, a psychologist and academic who had extensively studied sexual harassment, was reportedly ready to testify. Hill’s legal team said they conveyed her willingness to Senate staffers, but legislators never took them up on the offer. Fitzgerald did not return a request for comment for this story.

“I just don’t think [the hearing] was designed to really bring out the record,” said Susan Deller Ross, who was a member of Hill’s legal team. “The Republicans acted like prosecutors, and the Democrats acted sort of oblivious. So there was no one really ensuring that they actually investigated the issue in depth.”

While Biden saw himself as Hill’s ally ― albeit one in a tough spot ― she saw him as someone who ultimately let her down.

“There were three women who were ready and waiting and subpoenaed to be giving testimony about similar behavior that they had experienced or witnessed. He failed to call them,” she told HuffPost Live in an interview two years ago. “There also were experts who could have given real information as opposed to the misinformation that the Senate was giving ... and helped the public understand sexual harassment. He failed to call them.”

‘Flatfooted Judgment Calls’

Mayer and Abramson characterized Biden’s chairmanship of the hearings as made up of a number of “flatfooted judgment calls.” The Democrats on the committee, they wrote, “were in almost total disarray, especially compared with the well-organized Republicans.”

There were little moments, like not declaring Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) unsubstantiated speculation that Hill had made up her story based on the plot of “The Exorcist” and a 1988 court case in which a black woman alleged sexual harassment against her supervisor to be out of order. And then there were bigger issues, like having the three additional women testify and giving in to GOP demands on the timing of the hearings and testimony.

The main reason the hearings went the way they did seemed to be the committee’s desire to move on. But Republicans were also better-prepared. As Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times at the time, “The Democrats made a pass at figuring out what had happened in the case. The Republicans tried to win. While the Democrats were pronouncing themselves flummoxed by two diametrically opposed stories, the Republicans had already launched a scorched-earth strategy against Professor Hill.”

Republicans tapped Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) as their lead questioner, which Mayer and Abramson reported was a politically genius move on the part of Hatch and Danforth. Specter, a lawyer and former district attorney, had opposed Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan’s failed 1987 Supreme Court nominee, and he reportedly didn’t think Thomas was all that qualified for the job. So they gave Specter a starring role in the proceedings, which he took up gladly.

“As soon as [Specter] saw himself as the star prosecutor, he couldn’t resist,” Biden told Mayer and Abramson. “They knew his personality better than he did.”

Hill, meanwhile, had no such advocate among the Democrats. She alone had to deal with accusations that she was an erotomaniac, as well as vindictive, delusional and a liar.

“Most evident from the televised Judiciary Committee hearings was the fact that I sat in that hearing room without a patron on the panel. That image still resonates.”

- Anita Hill

Democrats also seemed uneasy about going after Thomas too hard because they recognized there was a racial element at play. Thomas lacked the legal experience and accolades of previous Supreme Court nominees, but Democrats didn’t want to make the second black Supreme Court nominee in history seem unintelligent.

“The thing that got him approved was that the Democrats were scared to death,” Vince D’Anna, a member of Biden’s team during the Thomas confirmation battle, told Witcover. “They just wanted this thing to be over with ― ‘Let’s be done with it; let’s vote. Nothing good is going to come from it.’ There were no profiles in courage on that committee.”

Biden, too, has said he didn’t think Thomas would have been confirmed if he had been white, calling it “a cynical ploy by President Bush.”

“Thomas was the one in my view engaging in racism, and I not only mean racism in terms of playing the race card, but racism in trying to reinforce the stereotypical notion about black women,” Biden told Witcover. “That was the sin I don’t forgive the guy for, and those who were making his case.”

Hill declined an interview for this piece, but her thoughts on Biden were made abundantly clear in her 1997 memoir. On the first page of the first chapter, she described Biden as someone who “chooses his words carefully” and has a “rather remarkable smile ― a grin that spreads from ear to ear in an instant, disclosing perfectly straight teeth.” That isn’t meant as a compliment.

Hill recalled an Oct. 8 phone call in which Biden tried to convince her he was on her side: “The only mistake I made, in my view, is to not realize how much pressure you were under. I should have been more aware. … Aw kiddo, I feel for you. I wish I weren’t the chairman, I’d come be your lawyer,” she recalled him saying.

But Hill said she feels like she was left out to dry.

“Most evident from the televised Judiciary Committee hearings was the fact that I sat in that hearing room without a patron on the panel. That image still resonates,” she wrote in a 1995 essay. “My sin was not simply that I did not have a patron. Nor was it simply that I rejected patronage offered to me, since none was offered. My initial sin in the eyes of the senators was that I dared to come to the body on my own, that I did not actively pursue patronage at the outset.”

Thomas didn’t come away with a significantly better impression of Biden, believing that the chair had privately offered him his support only to eventually vote against his confirmation. After Thomas eventually won, Biden reportedly left a very gracious congratulatory message on Thomas’ answering machine, which was “greeted by a less than gracious response” from Thomas, according to Danforth’s book on the hearings.

Up until the end, Biden refused to go after Thomas’ character ― even after all he heard from Hill and what he knew of the other women’s experiences. Although he voted against Bush’s nominee in the final count, he said on the Senate floor, “For this senator, there is no question with respect to the nominee’s character.”

“I could have brought in the pornography stuff,” Biden said in a 1992 interview. “I could have decimated him with that. I could have raised ― and with more legitimacy than what [the Republicans] were doing ― but it would make a lie of everything I fought for. ... To go back and say because the guy was 20 years old and he watched pornography at Yale, that that means that there’s a nexis between that and whether or not he spoke of pornography 20 years later? It’s outrageous. But compelling.”

Twenty years earlier, Biden had lost his wife and infant daughter in a car accident just as he was about to enter the Senate. He was very private about the incident and almost never mentioned it, giving him an understanding about the fact that there are certain issues people just don’t want to discuss.

Mayer and Abramson also pointed to Biden’s more recent experience during the 1987 confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, when the press went after the Delaware senator for plagiarizing a British politician’s speech. Reporters dug into Biden’s past, unearthing an instance of plagiarism in law school and exaggerations of his academic record. Biden ended up dropping out of the 1988 presidential race over the issue, even though he had been considered a top contender in the Democratic primary. He had little appetite to give others that same treatment.

The Anita Hill Legacy

Biden seemed pleased with his performance in the Thomas nomination hearings in an interview with Mayer and Abramson for their 1994 book, noting that polls showed that as much as 86 percent of the country knew who he was, and a majority of people believed he had been “fair.”

“That’s a highly unusual exposure rate for a senator,” he said. “Most voters can’t name their own senator. But now everywhere I go, I get recognized.”

Since then, Biden has admitted the hearings weren’t perfect. But he’s never given a full apology, as many Hill supporters would like him to do.

In 1992, The Washington Post asked Biden whether Democrats should have been more aggressive.

In my gut I regret it, in my intellect I don’t,” he said. “Because it would have made a lie of everything I say I believe.”

Hill said in an interview with Time last year that she believed the hearings made it harder to deal with sexual harassment because they “influenced how employers would react to sexual harassment, how universities would react to it, and we’re still trying to dig out from that.”

“The Senate, instead of reflecting the best practices that had been developed at that point, lapsed into combativeness,” she said. “The hearings showed people what happens when representatives don’t make a real attempt to get to the bottom of issues and to understand how sexual harassment works.”

One thing Biden said in his 2015 speech at Ohio State that was absolutely right was that the hearings ignited the country. They certainly galvanized women to action, as a record number ran in the 1992 elections, citing their anger that Hill had faced a panel of white men who seemed to understand so little about what she went through.

Four more Democratic women ― Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington ― won election to the Senate that year. Twenty new Democratic women were elected to the House, and the pro-choice Democratic group EMILY’s List grew from 3,000 to 24,000 members. It was dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”

The Hill hearing “electrified the country,” Slaughter recalled. “I don’t think there’s any question about it.”

Moseley Braun and Feinstein also took seats on the Judiciary Committee, but not without a misstep by Biden. The chairman hand-delivered a dozen red roses to Boxer with the note, “Welcome to the Senate Judiciary Committee.” News reports at the time described the moment in highly gendered language ― that Biden had tried to “woo” Boxer but was “scorned” and that Biden was “going courting” while the new senators were “playing hard to get.”

Those women haven’t forgotten Hill and her impact. Boxer, who retired last year after 24 years in the Senate, acknowledged Hill in her farewell speech last month.

“Without her, I never would have been elected to the Senate,” Boxer said. “Anita Hill courageously told her story to the all-male U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, breaking the silence on this painful issue.”

Hill, too, has said she owes a debt of gratitude to the support she received from female politicians at the time.

“I will say: if those women from Congress had not marched over to the Senate and demanded a hearing, I do not think it would have happened,” Hill told Time magazine last year. “That, to me, is leadership. And that’s why we need more women in leadership positions. We haven’t even come close in terms of representation to a critical mass.”

In this new session of Congress, Feinstein is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee ― the first woman in history to hold that position.

‘The Cause Of My Life’

Joe Biden made combatting violence against women a central part of his time as vice president.
Joe Biden made combatting violence against women a central part of his time as vice president.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Biden’s mismanagement of the Thomas nomination and Hill’s allegations is a sharp contrast to the work he’s done on women’s rights in the years since, particularly when it comes to ending violence against women ― “the cause of my life,” as he has called it.

“He’s been a really positive ally, and he’s opened doors at the White House to these issues in a way that has not existed in my history,” said Gandy, who is now president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“I can’t name another elected official with the national platform that he has who has been any more passionate or any more effective than he has,” Greenberger said. “I give him a great debt of gratitude for his championing of these issues at the same time that I remain very disappointed with what happened during those Thomas hearings.”

One of Biden’s most noteworthy accomplishments is the landmark Violence Against Women Act. Biden shepherded that bill through the Senate, leading to its eventual passage in 1994. The law provided a comprehensive national strategy for dealing with the crisis, including increased penalties for offenders, protections for women who come forward, and funding and support for coordinated community response.

Congress has reauthorized VAWA three times since then, including after a tough legislative fight in 2012 and 2013, in which some Republicans opposed including protections for undocumented immigrants, same-sex couples and Native Americans.

“The Violence Against Women Act in 1994 was very hard to pass. … This was not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination,” Feminist Majority Foundation President Ellie Smeal said. “And [Biden] made it an issue. It wouldn’t pass without him, there’s no question about it.”

Slaughter, one of the original co-authors of the legislation, also praised Biden’s work.

“He’s a great guy,” she said. “He’s a real soldier in the field for the Democratic Party.”

Even before Obama won the 2008 election, Biden made clear he wanted the administration to combat sexual assault. The vice president created a new position, White House adviser on violence against women, to ensure that the issue continued to get attention.

“That was a real turning point, I think, in terms of the attention that the issue would receive at the highest levels of the White House,” Gandy said.

Biden has also sought to address the scourge of sexual assault on college campuses ― a problem that affects 20 percent of women and 5 percent of men, according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll of current and recent college students. Biden toured schools around the country and urged them to change how they deal with violence.

“We are the first administration to make it clear that sexual assault is not just a crime, it can be a violation of a woman’s civil rights,” he said in 2011 in a speech at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Biden’s speech coincided with a letter the Department of Education sent to colleges and universities outlining new guidance about Title IX, the federal statute prohibiting sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding. That letter made clear that school administrators had an obligation to act on sexual violence.

“If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects,” read the Obama administration’s letter, which also threatened to pull a school’s federal funding if the government determined it was not taking steps to address the problem. As of last July, the Education Department had more than 250 ongoing investigations at postsecondary institutions.

In 2014, the White House started a task force to combat student sexual assault and a nationwide campaign to raise awareness. A key part of the strategy was to get men more involved in the efforts, a move away from a culture that so often places the responsibility for sexual assault on women.

“He helped bring a lot of men into it, which is also necessary if we’re ever going to reduce these numbers of sexual assaults on college campuses,” Gandy added.

Biden also spoke out forcefully against Trump and his treatment of women during the 2016 election. When audio emerged of Trump bragging about using his celebrity status to grope women, Biden tweeted that what he was talking about was sexual assault.

“I’m tired of new politicians who want to go to Washington to demean women,” Biden said in a speech in Nevada a few days later.

Biden will leave the White House with a far different image than many women had of him in 1991. He is extremely popular in the Democratic Party, able to connect with a wide range of voters in a way that many other politicians envy. There is even talk that he could run for president in 2020.

Women’s rights activists say that whatever he does, they hope he stays involved in their fight. Gandy called the Thomas hearings part of Biden’s history, but not his legacy, and Smeal said his leadership on women’s rights “so surpasses” what happened in 1991.

“I think it takes a big heart and an open mind to evolve, to learn,” Greenberger said. “And I think that Vice President Biden has demonstrated that in many contexts, but nowhere more clearly than in his strong championing of laws and policies to protect those who have been the subject of sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual mistreatment.”

This story has been updated to include comment from Biden’s office.

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