At the commencement of Women’s History Month, Senator Barbara Mikulski’s decision not to seek a sixth term prompts us to reflect on the career of one of the most powerful female political figures in America, who rallied herself and a cadre of women by declaring:”Let’s put on our lipstick and go fight.” Her announcement ends an era, but not a legacy. As one of only 46 female senators in U.S. history, she’ll retire in 2017 as the longest-serving woman senator– capping three decades of public service and a political journey that has taken her from a novelty to a namesake.
As our research at Political Parity shows, Mikulski’s path to high-level office was unconventional: “I didn’t come to politics by the traditional male route, being in a nice law firm or belonging to the right clubs. Like most of the women I’ve known in politics, I got involved because I saw a community need.” A social worker and daughter of a grocer, her humble roots kept her grounded. She entered politics by organizing her community to stop the development of an eight-lane highway through a historic African-American neighborhood in Baltimore.
She won her 1976 bid for the U.S. House by “knocking on 15,000 doors, wearing out four pairs (of shoes), and getting mugged by 47 Chihuahuas.” Her jump to the Senate in 1986 – boosted by the new fundraising group EMILY’s List—we’ve long attested to the power of women’s political action committees—made her the first female Democrat to win election to the chamber, catapulting her into a world that was two percent female. Just two decades later, there are 20 women senators, in large part because of Mikulski.
“Coach Barb” has long been the mentoring matriarch of the upper chamber. “I didn’t have any natural mentors to show me the ropes. I had to seek out my mentors. So when four women finally joined me in the Senate in 1993…I gladly took on the role of mentor and adviser.” In her signature style, Mikulski scolded commentators who heralded that election cycle the Year of the Woman, quipping, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”
But for years, two decades in fact, Mikulski has gathered Senate women for monthly dinners, where they discuss everything from Guantanamo to grandchildren. She started the gatherings with the ground rules: “No staff, no memos, and no leaks.” She also runs the Senate Power Workshop to guide newly-elected women—Republicans and Democrats—on committee selection and teach them the ropes. Beyond their policy work, the “Senate sisterhood” extends to home life, with shared baby showers and summer vacations. We know that this type of mentorship is critical to encouraging women to get involved, stay involved, and ascend the political pipeline.
Whether advancing legislation or chatting up childcare, these women have bonded in ways both formal and informal, using their experiences as women to get things done and bring fresh perspectives and innovative approaches to a political system that’s in desperate need of change. While she was the only female chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee in history, Mikulski said, “Chairmen and chairwoman always have power. But I believe in the power of the grassroots. I believe in the power of putting together coalitions of like-minded people.”
She’ll long be known for pioneering new ground, breaking and setting precedents, and mentoring generations of female political leaders, encouraging resolution over condemnation, sitting down rather than settling scores, and finding common ground for common good. She once said, “Power is the ability to get things done on your own terms.” By that definition, she’s certainly one of the most powerful women in America.
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