Longtime Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced she would be retiring from the U.S. Senate, ending her career as longest-serving female senator in American history.
She announced her decision not to seek reelection in 2016 and pass up a sixth term in the U.S. Senate during a press conference in the Fells Point neighborhood in Baltimore. She said there wasn’t a health issue, and that she wasn’t frustrated with the Senate. “The Senate will always be what the Senate is,” she said. Instead, she said she was contemplating how she wanted to spend her time over the next two years, wondering if she’d rather work on fundraising or working for her constituents. “Do I spend my time raising money? Or do I spend my time raising hell?” she said.
Mikulski, who hails from East Baltimore and served on the Baltimore City Council, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1976, where she served for 10 years before being elected to the Senate in 1986. During her nearly 30-year tenure in the legislative body, Mikulski has stacked up a long list of accomplishments. The first is that she was the first Democratic female senator to be elected on her own credentials — Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, was the first woman to serve in both legislative bodies, but she also succeeded her husband after his death.
Mikulski can take credit for being the chief sponsor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which reversed a Supreme Court ruling that restored the ability to sue one’s employer over pay discrimination after each individual discriminatory paycheck, and it was the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law. She was also the first-ever woman to serve as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee in 2012.
Mikulski has sponsored legislation that aimed to overhaul the federal child care standards for low-income workers for the first time in 18 years. Her role in Obamacare was notable; her amendment to the Affordable Care Act mandated free coverage of mammograms and a range of other preventative health care for women. She’s been a strong proponent of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would improve pay transparency and strengthen protections for women who seek fair pay. While discussing the legislation on the Senate floor, she talked about how frustrated she was hearing excuses from her male colleagues for not passing the legislation. “I get angry. I get outraged. I get volcanic,” she said.
She has also been a fierce defender of science and environmental funding, once saving the funding for the Hubble telescope. “Science and technology is my passion. I believe it can change the world, transform the world, and even save the world,” she said.
Mikulski has been a trailblazer in more ways than just on official legislation. When she arrived, she fought to get access to the Senate gym. “They just couldn’t accommodate me and I’m not much of a jock anyway, but that’s where they networked and that’s where they bonded,” Mikulski told CNN. Male senators resisted opening access to the pool because they liked to swim naked.
She was also the first woman to wear pants on the Senate floor. “I’m most comfortable wearing slacks, and well, for a woman to come on the (Senate) floor in trousers was viewed as a seismographic event,” Mikulski told CNN.
A leader among other women in the Senate, Mikulski helps organize regular dinners that are women-only. She serves as a mentor, often distributing information on how to get on committees and the basics of running an office, and earned her the name of “dean” of women senators. When she was first elected to the U.S. Senate, she was one of two women in the legislative body. Now, there are 20, including a record number of Republican female senators.
She didn’t satisfy herself with mentoring women; she also went a long way in educating male senators. In the 1990s after the disaster of the Anita Hill hearings, she and Al Gore’s wife Tipper organized bipartisan dinners with male senators to educate them on gender politics with prominent feminists like Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen.
Her receptionist is former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s mother, who is widely rumored to be a top-tier candidate to replace her. Another long-serving female senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, also announced she wouldn’t be seeking re-election in 2016 late last year.
Even her male Republican colleagues can’t help but have admiration for the four-foot-eleven Marylander. “I think she’s terrific,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told WBAL.