Largely lost in the coverage of the wave of new congresswomen who arrived in Washington two weeks ago was the story of re-elected Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. When she was sworn in, she became the longest-serving woman senator in U.S. history. The previous female record-holder was Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who represented Maine in the Senate for 24 years, until 1973.
Mikulski, the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right, is a groundbreaker. When she joined the Senate in 1986, 98 of her 99 colleagues were male. In ways large and small, she was told she did not belong there. Yet she has remained, and in doing so she has paved the way for other women, who call her the Dean of the Women.
She started her U.S. congressional career in the House in 1977. When she arrived at the Senate, she was regularly reminded she was entering a man’s world. She had to travel two flights of stairs to use a restroom shared with tourists, because there was only a men’s room on the floor of the Senate. It was not until 1992 that women got their own restroom on the floor.
Women were also excluded from the Senate gym. “It took Kay Bailey Hutchison coming before women were allowed to use the treadmill,” she said to me for a 1997 profile I was writing for the Chicago Tribune’s Woman News section. “Like having a cigar in the library, it was the last bastion for them, I guess.” She followed that line with the humor that has been her trademark: “I spent the time getting worked up instead of worked out.”
As her colleague Barbara Boxer of California said to me about Mikulski, “She made it easier for those of us who came after her.” In addition to opening the door for other women lawmakers, Mikulski was unapologetic about taking on women’s issues, including pioneering health and employment issues. “Women’s needs have been minimized, trivialized, or are often forgotten altogether,” Mikulski told me in that 1997 interview.
She co-sponsored a reintroduction of the ERA. She was the chief sponsor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and stood right next to President Barack Obama as he signed the bill into law. She fought for the creation of the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention Act and the Office of Research on Women’s Health. She said that to reach her male colleagues, she personalized the issues, talking about the loss of wives and mothers to breast cancer. She was one of the first women to take on women’s issues in a truly personal way–something that women politicians today take for granted.
When allegations of rape, intimidation and sexual harassment arose at a Maryland Army base, Mikulski went to visit. This was in the years following the Clarence Thomas hearings, when sexual harassment had been brought to the nation’s attention. Mikulski deemed the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to be a hostile work environment and that things needed to change. “It’s not a women’s issue,” she said. “It’s an American issue, a cultural issue. Real guys don’t do this to women.”
Most recently, she authored the Mikulski Amendment to the recent health-care reform act, which requires insurance plans to cover women’s preventative care (such as mammograms) at no extra charge.
Today, 17 women serve together in the U.S. Senate, the most at any time in history. If there’s any question why we need more women in political office, Barbara Mikulski is one of the best answers.