After nearly 30 years in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced her retirement on Monday, saying she will not seek reelection in 2016. The 78-year-old Democrat from East Baltimore, Maryland, is the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress, having served as a U.S. representative from 1977 to 1987 before being elected to the Senate in 1986. Mikulski, a social worker-turned-politician, was also a feminist icon of sorts for modern-day female politicians, as she was one of just two women in the 100-person Senate when she first joined.
During an emotional press conference at Henderson’s Wharf Inn in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, Mikulski said she would like to spend the next two years working for her constituents in what she called "the spirit of East Baltimore."
The Democratic senator continued:
For me, service is about solving problems for my constituents. I could never put you or your needs on a back burner. With my own re-election on the horizon, I thought long and hard about how I want to spend the next two years – what is it I want to campaign for, for you or for me?
I had to decide whether to spend my time fighting to keep my job or fighting for your job. Do I spend my time raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs? Do I spend my time focusing on my election or the next generation. Do I spend the next two years making promises about what I will do or making progress on what I can do right now.
Mikulski promised that she would continue advocating for the issues that are closely tied to her and her constituents, including job creation, wage equality for women, and making college more affordable for young Americans. "Because every day, I want to wake up thinking about you — the little guys and gals, the watermen, automobile workers, researchers, small business owners and families," Mikulski said. "I want to give you 120 percent of my time with all of my energy focused on you and your future."
As a political pioneer, Mikulski served as a mentor, a role model, and a confidant for every woman who entered the Senate since the early '90s. After all, she had a lot of lessons to pass on: As a female senator surrounded by 98 men, Mikulski knew a thing or two about sexism and gender inequality in American politics. "I was greeted with a lot of skepticism from my male colleagues," Mikulski told The Washington Post in 2011. "Was I going to go the celebrity route or the Senate route? I had to work
Nicknamed the "dean" of Senate women, Mikulski took junior women senators under her wing, providing them with personal mentorship even if they weren't part of her own party. She was known to foster the camaraderie we now see today in the women senators, who meet monthly for dinner on Capitol Hill. Even Sen. Harry Reid noted Mikulski's bipartisanship, as well as her glass-ceiling-breaking career, in his statement about his colleague:
Barbara Mikulski is a trailblazer – the first woman elected to the United States Senate from Maryland and the first woman to become Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. As Dean of the women of the Senate, Barbara has been a mentor and friend to Senators on both sides of the aisle. Through her work, she has helped a generation of women leaders rise in the Senate.
Mikulski's latest feminist battle was ending wage inequality. As the lead sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act, Mikulski took to the floor when the bill failed to pass last April, candidly expressing her disappointment in her male colleagues while openly pointing out the nation's biases about women.
"You know, when we raise an issue, we're too emotional. Well, I am emotional," Mikulski said on the Senate floor. "It brings tears to my eyes to know how women every, single day are working so hard and are getting paid less. It makes me emotional to hear that."
"I get angry," Mikulski continued, her voice rising. "I get volcanic."
Stay volcanic, Sen. Mikulski.
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