We Heart: Trailblazing Senator Barbara Mikulski

Screen shot 2015-03-03 at 3.22.52 PMThe pioneering politician who “made it okay for women to wear pants in the Senate” won’t be seeking re-election.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate, announced her pending retirement yesterday at a news conference in Baltimore. In her nearly 30 years in the Senate, Mikulski achieved many firsts, including being the first Democratic woman to win a Senate seat through election (before that, women had only been seated when their husbands died in office). The political landscape for women has greatly changed over her tenure (there are now 19 other women in the Senate), and much of that is thanks to the path that Mikulski cleared.

Another senator named Barbara who is retiring in 2016, Barbara Boxer, wrote of her longtime colleague and mentor:

The Senate used to be a lonely place for women, but Senator Mikulski, now 78, changed that. For the women of the Senate, she will always be our Dean—the woman who opened up the doors of the Senate wide enough to let the women of America walk in. The people of Maryland have been lucky to have such a champion—a 4′ 11” fighter …

Mikulski spent much of her career advocating for women and families, pushing through legislation that changed and probably saved lives. Just a few of her many legislative achievements:

  • She sponsored the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pair Act of 2009. The new law reversed the 180-day statute of limitations for women to litigate for pay discrimination.
  • She introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to the Senate, which has yet to pass but, if implemented, would help close the 23 percent wage gap for women.
  • She successfully campaigned for free preventative care for women, such as contraceptive coverage, to be included in the Affordable Care Act.
  • She helped then-Sen. Joe Biden to pass the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. She has successfully pushed for each reauthorization since then.
  • Congress recently passed legislation that Mikulski sponsored that will help low-income families with child care costs through a grant program.

Though Mikulski will be missed, we hope that there are other women politicians inspired to follow in her footsteps.

During her announcement, Mikulski reminded everyone that she will always be in the game, senator or not:

Though I’m turning a new page, make no mistake, we’re not writing the last chapter.

Photo courtesy of user Tom via Wikimedia Commons.


Associate editor of Ms. magazine