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Posted at 04:00 PM ET, 03/21/2012

Barbara Mikulski honored as longest-serving woman in Congress

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) became the longest-serving woman in Congress on Saturday, but her colleagues waited until Wednesday to mark the milestone.


Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Mikulski, 75, holds several records, as the first woman senator from Maryland, the first woman Democrat to serve in both the House and Senate, the longest-serving woman in the Senate and, as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted, the first elected to Congress “in her own right” and “not because of a husband or a father or someone who served before her in higher office.”

Seated two rows behind the Senate majority leader’s post, Mikulski listened Wednesday afternoon as several colleagues honored her tenure. Her sisters, Fran Liszewski and Chris Fajkowski, and their husbands (both named Ed) watched from the Senate gallery while Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.) and former Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) watched from the Senate floor.

Durbin and other colleagues used Mikulski’s own words to note her achievement, noting that Mikulski downplayed the importance of 1992 as “the year of the woman,” when an historic number of women were elected to the Senate.

“Calling 1992 the year of the woman makes it sound like the year of the Caribou or the year of the Asparagus,” Mikulski said at the time. “We’re not a fad, fancy or a year.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) recalled how Mikulski once summed up her ascension to political office and how it began over a fight to stop the construction of a highway through Baltimore’s Fell’s Point: “I got into politics fighting a highway,” Mikulski said, Reid recalled. “In other countries, they take dissidents and put them in jail. In the United States of America, because of the First Amendment, they put them in the United States Senate.”

On Saturday Mikulski surpassed in longevity Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, a Massachusetts Republican who spent 35 years on Capitol Hill. She became the longest-serving female senator in January 2011 and spent a decade in the House before being elected to her current post in 1986.

When Mikulski began her House tenure in 1977, she was one of 21 women serving in Congress — 18 in the House and three in the Senate. Today there are 92 women serving, with 17 in the Senate.

Along the way, she had to battle stereotypes, including some that suggested women couldn’t be serious legislators. When she entered the Senate, she told The Washington Post last year, “I was greeted with a lot of skepticism from my male colleagues.” She added: “Was I going to go the celebrity route or the Senate route? I had to work very hard.”

When she rose to spoke Wednesday, Mikulski first recalled her Catholic school education and thanked her parents, noting that her father opened his East Baltimore grocery store each morning by saying, “Good morning, can I help you?”

“I want to thank my family, I want to thank the religious women that educated me,” she said later. “I want to thank all of my staff that worked so hard to help me do a good job. And I want to thank the countless volunteers who believed in me and worked for my election when nobody else did. And most of all, I want to thank the people of the 3rd Congressional District and the State of Maryland, who said, ‘Barb, we’re going to give you your shot. Don’t ever forget this. Don’t ever forget us.

“And I want them to know: Though I’ve now served 12,892 days, I will never forget them, and every morning I’m saying in my heart, ‘Good morning, can I help you?’”

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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