A milestone for Mikulski, the 'dean' of Senate women

On Jan. 5, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) becomes the longest-serving female senator in history.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 12:16 AM

With a new Congress beginning, hundreds of new lawmakers will be sworn in Wednesday. But only one will break a record that's lasted four decades.

At the moment Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) completes the oath to begin her fifth term in the chamber, she will become the longest-serving female senator, surpassing the 24-year tenure of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine).

When she took office in 1987, Mikulski recalled in a recent interview, "women were so rare even holding statewide political office. . . . I was greeted with a lot of skepticism from my male colleagues. Was I going to go the celebrity route or the Senate route? I had to work very hard."

No one is skeptical anymore.

The Senate will take up a resolution commending her achievement Wednesday, with a bipartisan cast of lawmakers paying tribute. About 25 friends and family members will be there to watch - Mikulski had to bum extra tickets from colleagues to fit them all in. She'll get a reception in her honor in the historic Russell Caucus Room and then attend a private party with her former top aides.

Among Mikulski's many firsts is that she was the first female Democrat to serve in both chambers of Congress and the first female Democrat to be elected to the Senate without succeeding her husband or father. In the Senate, she was the first woman to chair an appropriations subcommittee and the first woman to serve on a handful of other panels.

And now, she'll be the first woman to serve a quarter-century in the Senate.

There are two ways to look at the milestone: as a symbol of just how far Mikulski, 74, and her fellow female senators have come, or of how much further they have to go.

Mikulski's tenure puts her first all-time among women, yet dozens of men have served longer - including 13 current senators.

When Mikulski took office in 1987, she was one of two women in the Senate. That number rose to three in 1991 and then to seven after the 1992 election, known as "the Year of the Woman." The total has continued to climb, although not quickly.

Of the 13 new senators elected in November, just one - Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) - is a woman. And because Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) lost her reelection race, the overall number of women serving in the Senate will stay at 17 for the second consecutive Congress.

"I would have a more 'glass is half empty' outlook on this one," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. "When we are 52 percent of the population and only 17 percent of the Senate, it's difficult to say we've made so much progress, especially when that number has plateaued."

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