Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski bade farewell to the U.S. Senate recently, concluding 45 years in elective office and projecting the next phase of her life.
"You know when people vote for you, it’s not only that they’re sending you to Washington or City Hall," she said. “They’re giving you a vote of confidence that you will be their voice, that you will be their vote, that you will be at their side and on their side.”
Speaking on the Senate floor to a gathering of her closest friends and supporters, Mikulski said she was particularly grateful to the people who elected her to the Baltimore City Council.
"When I beat the political bosses, when running for political office as a woman was considered a novelty, they said you don’t look the part," she recalled. "I said, this is what the part looks like."
The Maryland Democrat is one of seven senators retiring at the end of this year. Some, like Mikulski, are leaving by choice, others not.
Mikulski holds the distinction of being the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right, and the longest serving woman in congressional history.
"When my great-grandmother came to this country from Poland in 1886, she had little money in her pocket, but she had big dreams in her heart," Mikulski said. "Women didn’t even have the right to vote."
One hundred years later, Mikulski noted, she landed in the Senate.
"It has been just wonderful to see that now there are over 20 women who are currently serving in the United States Senate, and one of the great joys has been to work to help empower them," she said.
As for legislative achievements, Mikulski said, her greatest inspiration has often come from chatting with folks informally.
"I loved my Mondays in Maryland, where I could meet and go into unannounced places, like diners," she recalled.
On such outings, Mikulski said, she was inspired to take up causes such as getting rid of the requirement that older couples must spend down their joint assets to get medical coverage if one of them falls ill. Working with a bipartisan group of female colleagues in both the House and Senate, Mikulski noted that they were able to end a National Institutes of Health practice of excluding women from clinical drug tests.
"At NIH, we pounded the table and said let’s start practicing good science instead of bad stereotypes," she recalled.
One result of this collaboration has made the women lawmakers less likely to judge each other based on party labels.
"I’m so darned sick of that," Mikulski fumed. "We are not a caucus, we are a force that can come together, and we have made change and we have made a difference."
Maryland’s senior senator, who will be succeeded by Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, has not announced plans for what may be next in her career.
"My plan is not a job description, but it’s a life description," she explained. "Every day, I’m going to learn something new. Every day, I want to give something back."
Somehow, it doesn’t sound like her routine will be all that different.