WASHINGTON – On a mid-November afternoon, the women of the United States Senate filed into Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s office to celebrate a sweet 16 of sorts.
With two newly elected women this year — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. — the total of women senators come January will hit a record-breaking 16.
Mikulski, D-Md., their dean and the senior woman senator, says she and her colleagues are no longer a rarity, but they still face the challenge of balancing legislation aimed at women with broader issues ranging from national security to the economy.
“When I came . . . we were a bit of a novelty in the Senate,” Mikulski said. “I think what we see now is that we’re not viewed as a novelty; we’re not viewed as celebrities. We’re viewed as senators.”
The slow-but-steady rise in the number of women senators is a pattern that has become commonplace in the last 14 years, but some remember a time when it wasn’t so.
Twenty years ago, when Mikulski became the first Democratic woman senator elected in her own right, she and Nancy Kassebaum Baker were the only two women in the Senate.
“Right now it’s no big deal,” said Kassebaum Baker, a Kansas Republican who served in the Senate from 1978 to 1997. “There will always be women in the Senate.”
Women’s success in the upper echelons of Congress is due in part to the work of people like Mikulski, who in some ways has become their matriarch. The 4-foot-11-inch senator has gained a reputation for encouraging women to enter politics and mentoring them across party lines.
“Barbara has always been very welcoming to new women senators,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
“When I came to the Senate in 1997, Senator Mikulski immediately took me under her wing, as she does for all women senators,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who coined the term “sweet 16” to describe the women senators after November’s election. “. . . I have been inspired by Senator Mikulski’s tireless fight for the people of her state.”
In 1992, when four new women were elected, Mikulski launched bipartisan workshops to familiarize female freshmen with what she calls the “nuts and bolts” of the institution.
“I think she really takes that role very seriously,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “She’s been very much about the partisan connection, but also the bipartisan connection.”
“Senator Barbara Mikulski has been a leader for women senators from the time she hit the ground running,” Klobuchar said. “She has advice on how to run constituent services — something she does very well — to how to command a podium when you’re under 5-foot-4-inches.”
Mikulski’s efforts to crack the glass ceiling began long before she became senator. A community organizer who mobilized Baltimore residents against a highway project threatening to slice up the city’s Fells Point neighborhood, the young and liberal Mikulski won a seat on a male-dominated City Council in 1971.
“She really had to break in the machine,” said Mary Pat Clarke, who assisted with the campaign. “She went out door to door to beat the machine and get on the City Council.”
The social worker turned councilwoman became so popular in Baltimore that when Clarke ran in a different district a few years later, voters worried that the two were competing. Clarke, a Democrat who now represents Baltimore’s 14th District on the council, said she carried a note written by Mikulski to prove that she wasn’t running against her.
Mikulski planted a geranium in the brass spittoon that came with her council desk, Clarke said, and tried to improve salaries for women paraprofessionals.
“She’s a walking, talking, women’s rights person,” said Clarke.
After five years on the City Council, Mikulski was elected to represent Maryland’s 3rd District in Congress, where she became known for bipartisan cooperation and her ability to build strong coalitions.
“We worked well together in the House,” said Helen Delich Bentley, a Maryland Republican who served in Congress between 1985 and 1995. “One of us would take the tough side of an issue and the other one would be the softie.”
Colleagues say Mikulski understood the needs of her constituents, and championed not only women’s issues but focused on everything from manufacturing and shipbuilding to dredging.
“I’ve never worked as a woman in Congress. I’ve worked as a member in Congress, and I think she did, too,” Bentley said.
In the Senate, the tough-talking, energetic politician quickly carved a niche for herself, joining the Appropriations Committee and repeatedly securing money for the Chesapeake Bay, state transportation programs and NASA projects.
“She doesn’t come across as your average woman. She doesn’t try to act pretty. She can be really rough,” said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. “She certainly doesn’t conform to traditional stereotypes of women in the United States.”
Mikulski excelled at framing Maryland’s needs in terms of national issues, said Kassebaum Baker. Similarly, the senator found a way to project women’s issues onto a larger screen. She has paid particular attention to women’s health, improving access to mammograms and cancer screenings.
“That’s how she’s best known in the feminist community,” said Duchy Trachtenberg, a local and regional official at the National Organization for Women and a member of the Montgomery County Council. “She’s been loyal to our issues.”
The senator was instrumental in the establishment of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health. In the early 1990s, when the institution performed little research on women’s day-to-day health concerns, Mikulski fought to bring such issues to the foreground, said Cindy Pearson, executive director at the National Women’s Health Network.
When a male NIH physician tried to leave during a hearing, Pearson recalled, Mikulski said, “‘I don’t think so,’ and she sat him back down.”
She’s used her fiery attitude, observers say, to address other issues affecting women, including child care, sexual harassment, birth control access and abortion rights.
“Barbara Mikulski has been in the forefront of every reproductive rights issue, fighting for women to have the ability to have healthy and safe families and relationships,” said John Nugent, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.
Women’s health will be a priority for the women of the 110th Senate, Mikulski said, as will larger themes, including college affordability and retirement. The women “intend to be a force,” she said, adding that “every issue is a women’s issue.”
The senator doesn’t deny that women still face obstacles as they aim for elected office, but Mikulski hasn’t lost faith in seeing more Maryland women in Washington, and she is eager to have more women join the Senate ranks.
“We’re now viewed as full partners in the Senate,” she said. “I can’t wait until we’re 20.”