Longest-Serving Woman Senator Looks After The Rest

Host Liane Hansen talks with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is the longest serving female senator in U.S. history. When Mikulski arrived in the Senate in 1986, there wasn't even a woman's bathroom. Since then, she has become the unofficial dean of the increasing number of women serving in the Senate.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

In 1986, Senator Barbara Mikulski became the first Democratic woman to be elected to a Senate seat not held by her husband. With her re-election in the 2010 midterms, the Senator from Maryland has now served in that august body longer than any woman in U.S. history.

Over the years, she's become the dean of Senate women. And in that unofficial role, she holds regular dinner parties with a bipartisan group of women senators and acts as a mentor, sharing the benefit of her decades-long experience on the Hill.

Senator Mikulski is in her office in Washington, D.C., and so are we.

Senator Mikulski, thank you for inviting us to talk to you today in your office.

Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): Hi, Liane. As time has gone on, the office has gotten a little bit bigger, but the responsibilities have gotten very significant.

HANSEN: No doubt. What it was like, as a woman, to into walk into the Senate 25 years ago?

Sen. MIKULSKI: Well, first, it was an enormous thrill. And it was also very scary, because I felt it was not only Barb Mikulski that was coming into the Senate, but I was bringing half of the population with me. And I felt that if I didnt succeed that people would look down their nose at women succeeding, in truly a pretty big man's world.

HANSEN: Do you think being a woman at that time helped you politically, or hurt you in terms of getting things done? Because you were only one of a handful, so is the spotlight hotter on you?

Sen. MIKULSKI: Well, first of all, in all of American history, when I arrived only 16 women had served. Now, there - in all of American history, 39 have served. There're now 17 of us serving at one time. So there are more women serving in the United States Senate now than had ever served at all, under any condition, when I arrived.

So I went to work trying to work twice as hard to be twice good at being a legislator, in order to prove that we were up to the job and that I could really do the job.

HANSEN: Do you think with women running for public office today - as you said, there are 17 women senators - does it even bear mentioning now?

Sen. MIKULSKI: It absolutely does. Particularly now, people are so frustrated. They're frustrated with their government. They're frustrated with the way they perceive we dont get value for the dollar. And I believe what they look to the women are - you know, we work on the big macro issues, that so many of my colleagues chair really important committee: Mary Landrieu on small business, Diane Feinstein on intelligence, Barb Boxer on the environment.

But while we work on the macro issues, we also bring the macaroni and cheese issues.

HANSEN: Every issue is a women's issue.

Sen. MIKULSKI: Well, thats what I said and thats all of, really, what the women say on both sides of the aisle. National security is a woman's issue. Fighting and dying for your country certainly is a family issue. You just ask those military families on multiple deployments, with the stress that they have to have. Balancing the budget - well, wow - thats a national issue and it's also a family issue. Because the way we balance our budget impacts the way the families will ultimately balance theirs.

HANSEN: What part of your personality, your political savvy can be traced right back to your Baltimore roots, do you think?

Sen. MIKULSKI: Well, I think I am who I am because of the wonderful mother and father I had, and the wonderful kind of schools that I went to. My mother and father owned a small neighborhood grocery store. And they believed that we -everyone who was our neighbor - was part of our extended family. And if they were having tough times, my father and mother tried to help them over that hump.

I also went to Catholic schools and educated by the nuns. And their emphasis on leadership, service and then also the values of our faith contained in "The Beatitudes," Matthew: 5, "The Sermon on the Mount;" hunger and thirst after justice.

HANSEN: It is true you almost became a nun, but the discipline might have been too much?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. MIKULSKI: No. Well, you know, everyone at my age that saw these wonderful women who taught us and dedicated their lives, we all wanted to emulate. But, you know, the nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The one for me, the obedience - I think I would have had a tough time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. MIKULSKI: But just ask Harry Reid or George Bush, and they would say the same thing.

HANSEN: Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat from Maryland, thank you for inviting us to your office on Capitol Hill. And thank you very much for your time.

Sen. MIKULSKI: Good to be with you.

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