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After 35 years in Congress, the late Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers said, “The first 30 years are the hardest.” Sen. Barbara Mikulski doesn’t see the challenges diminishing anytime soon.
On Saturday, the fiery, 4-foot-11-inch Democratic Senator from Maryland will surpass Rogers as the longest-serving female Member of Congress.
According to the Senate Historical Office, Mikulski will reach 12,858 days of service this weekend.
“I think the challenges have just changed,” Mikulski told Roll Call about her years on Capitol Hill. “But the challenges have changed because when we came, there was so few of us and we were considered a novelty.”
With 76 in the House and 17 in the Senate, women may no longer be a novelty in Congress, but they are still a minority — a fact of which Mikulski, who already received the title of longest-serving female Senator in 2011, is well-aware.
During an interview, Mikulski seemed more interested in talking about contraception, the retirement of longtime friend and moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and diminished bipartisanship than about her personal accomplishments.
“Now, where we are, though our numbers have increased,” she said, “we see in the public policy arena that there is more partisan prickliness.”
Considered by many of her colleagues as a friend and mentor, she is guided by a Catholic belief in social justice, her role as dean of Senate women and a faith in bipartisanship — not reflected in her liberal voting record — all endowed by her quick-witted sense of humor.
A Nod to the Nuns
Mikulski can tally a number of “firsts” from her time in Congress, among them: first woman elevated to a leadership post in the Senate, first female Democrat to serve in both chambers, only current Member of Congress in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and one of the first women to wear pants on the Senate floor.
She attended Catholic school and to this day extends thanks for her accomplishments to the nuns who steeped their charges in the doctrine of social justice.
“I feel that I am my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper,” she said. “I think that’s why I am shaped by the words of Jesus himself: Love thy neighbor. And I took it seriously.”
Born in 1936, Mikulski, a third-generation Polish American, grew up in working-class East Baltimore, an area where she established not only her political roots but her adherence to assisting the less fortunate.
Her parents ran a grocery store called Willy’s Market, and it opened early every morning so that steelworkers could buy lunch before their morning shifts.