When Barbara Mikulski was elected to the United States Senate in 1986, her presence doubled its female membership. As recently as the seventies, the Senate had a five-year stretch with no women. Mikulski discovered that the dress code still required women to wear skirts or dresses, so she asserted the right to wear slacks. “It was a small step for Barbara Mikulski, but a giant step for womankind,” she told me.
Her efforts only went so far. Twenty-eight years later, Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior Democratic Senator from New York, has described what it’s like to have one of the Senate’s more deliberated bodies. Gillibrand, who is promoting a memoir, told People that a male Congressman at the gym told her, “Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!” (Her reply: “Thanks, asshole.”) Another member of Congress held her arm and said, “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.” After she dropped fifty pounds, a member squeezed Gillibrand’s waist and said, “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby.”
I wrote recently that politicians with a weakness for plagiarism feel blissfully unbound by the ethics rules that would flunk a college freshman or put a blogger out of work. Now Gillibrand has provided new evidence that the Senate, which takes pride in its courtly traditions, exists in a world unto itself, seemingly unencumbered by the basic protections afforded by an H.R. department. But it should not come as a surprise that holders of our highest legislative offices feel comfortable making the kind of porcine comments that would get them tossed from junior management at a Piggly Wiggly, given how unaccustomed they are to mixing with female colleagues. “The share of women in office in the United States is smaller than in more than seventy countries in the world, from Cuba to Rwanda to Norway,” Anne Kornblut writes in her book, “Notes from the Cracked Ceiling.” “The U.S. ranking of women in politics is dropping while women’s political participation elsewhere is growing. There are fewer women in the U.S. Congress today than in the assembly of Afghanistan.” In a number of those countries, quotas set a minimum number of women in the legislature. Nobody is proposing that for America, though one wonders what the Afghans must make of us: in 2008, the South Carolina state senate did not have a single female member.
There was a moment when things were heading in a different direction. In 1991, the country watched a panel of senators question Anita Hill, who testified that Clarence Thomas, then a nominee for the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her. Thomas denied it, and was confirmed. Barbara Boxer, who was then in the House, looked at the investigating committee: “No women. No person of color,” she told me in an interview last fall. She wondered, “How can this be a representative body?” The spectacle of the Hill-Thomas hearings inspired Boxer and others to run for higher offices, and 1992 became known as the Year of the Woman. Female membership of the Senate went from two to six.
The tide of 1992 created the illusion that female representation in government would inevitably, and rapidly, increase; it did not. It took another eight years for the number of women senators to reach thirteen. It crept up slightly but then stalled for a decade or so, during which the drive to bring women into American government languished. In 2010, the number of women in Congress declined for the first time in thirty years. Meanwhile, the number of women in statewide office peaked in 2001, at twenty-eight per cent, and has since slumped back to twenty-three per cent.
There are many reasons for these numbers, but women losing elections is not one of them. In a 2013 study at American University, the political scientists Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox found that “the fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.” That is a changeable fact: women are a third less likely than men to be recruited to run, but Lawless also found that women are four times more likely to consider a run if the idea is suggested to them. In 2012, thanks in part to a recruitment drive and a fundraising push, a record number of women were elected to the House and Senate; they now constitute eighteen per cent of the House and twenty per cent of the Senate.
If Hillary Clinton runs for President in 2016, we will see how much has changed. In 2006, shortly before she announced her candidacy, the strategist Mark Penn wrote her an internal memo arguing that voters see their President as a “father,” and “do not want someone who would be the first mama.” He urged Clinton to embrace her inner Thatcher. Over the next eighteen months, Clinton talked tough on Iran, recalled ducking sniper fire in Bosnia, and adopted the "Rocky" theme as a campaign anthem. To Kornblut, who covered the campaign, Clinton sounded less like the Iron Lady than “a cross between Muhammad Ali and Winston Churchill.”
Clinton is unlikely to take quite the same approach, though she will face some of the same pressures to keep up with the towel-snapping. This is too bad. Political scientists find that female lawmakers tend to cross party lines in order to build consensus more often than men. Writing in the American Journal of Political Science in 2011, a team of researchers found that, faced with obstacles to passing a bill, “while men may choose to obstruct and delay, women continue to strive to build coalitions and bring about new policies.” (Asked on "60 Minutes" about the principle of compromise, Speaker John Boehner once said, “I reject the word.” He added, “I am not gonna compromise on my principles, nor am I gonna compromise the will of the American people.”) One of the areas in which Boehner’s House has remained resolutely uncompromising in its committee assignments. Women serve as the chair or ranking members of half the Senate’s twenty committees. In the House, not a single woman was named to lead any of the major committees in the 113th Congress; under criticism, Candice Miller was appointed to oversee the Capitol’s cleaning, maintenance, shops, and other infrastructure.
Gillibrand, for her part, has avoided a more pointed conflict by not naming names, and by presenting the comments as vestiges from another era. "It was all statements that were being made by men who were well into their sixties, seventies, or eighties," she told People. "They had no clue that those are inappropriate things to say to a pregnant woman or a woman who just had a baby or to women in general.” No clue? It’s striking to be reminded of what, twenty-two years after the Year of the Woman, Congressmen still don’t know.
Barbara Mikulski, in full Barbara Ann Mikulski, (born July 20, 1936, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.), American politician who was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1986 and represented Maryland in that body from 1987 to 2017. She was the first Democratic woman senator not elected as a replacement for her spouse, and in 2011 she surpassed Margaret Chase Smith’s record to become the longest-serving female senator. Mikulski previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1977–87).
Mikulski was raised in the Highlandtown neighbourhood of Baltimore, where her parents ran a grocery store. Inspired by the life of Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she aspired to a career in the sciences but found herself better suited to social work. She received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Mount Saint Agnes College (now part of Loyola University Maryland) in 1958. While working for social service organizations in Baltimore, Mikulski attended the University of Maryland, receiving a master’s degree in social work in 1965. She then worked for agencies that addressed drug addiction and the treatment of the elderly.
Mikulski soon became involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement, campaigning against segregation and working to ease tensions between black and white communities in the city. In 1971 Mikulski helped found the Southeast Council Against the Road (SCAR) in opposition to a plan to build a highway through a Baltimore neighbourhood; SCAR ultimately prevailed. The council evolved into the Southeast Community Organization, which went on to advocate for additional local causes. She was elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1971 and served until 1976. During her tenure she established commissions on care of the elderly and of rape victims.
Having run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1974, Mikulski was victorious in her 1976 campaign for the House of Representatives; she served for four more consecutive terms. During her tenure she secured positions on a number of committees whose decisions were important to the harbour city of Baltimore, among them the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (later, Committee on Energy and Commerce). Mikulski was a vocal opponent of the deep cuts enacted to social programs during the administration of U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan. In 1986 she was elected to the U.S. Senate, which made her the first female Democrat to win a seat in both legislative bodies. Mikulski served on several important Senate committees, including the Appropriations Committee (1987–17), of which she was the first female chair (2012–15), and the Select Committee on Intelligence (2001–17).
As a legislator, Mikulski vociferously advocated for a wide variety of causes, partisan and otherwise, notably focusing on social inequities and funding for health and science research. Her intervention as a member of the Appropriations Committee was widely credited with salvaging the New Horizons mission to Pluto when budgetary concerns threatened to scuttle it in 2002 and 2003. In 2007–08 Mikulski served as a cochair of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign; Clinton ultimately lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. In 2008 Mikulski campaigned vigorously for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extended the time frame in which pay-discrimination plaintiffs are able to file a complaint; the bill passed Congress in 2009. She also championed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010), to which she introduced an amendment that guaranteed annual health screenings for all women that would include preventive diagnostics for major health problems specific to females, and she was among the cosponsors of the act (2010) that repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the U.S. policy that prevented openly homosexual citizens from serving in the military.
In 2010 Mikulski also sponsored Rosa’s Law, which mandated the replacement of the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in federal legislation. As one of the senior female senators, Mikulski served as an informal dean to incoming women, mentoring and guiding them through the byzantine procedures and politics of the legislative body. She announced in March 2015 that she would not seek reelection the following year. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she was given the honour of nominating Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential candidate. Mikulski left office in 2017.
Mikulski penned two novels featuring a female senator, Capitol Offense (1996) and Capitol Venture (1997), with journalist Marylouise Oates. In 2015 Mikulski was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.