She couldn’t even use the Senate gym. Now she has a room of her own

‘Finally,’ says Barbara Mikulski at dedication ceremony

Former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., speaks during a Wednesday ceremony to name rooms on the Senate side of the Capitol after her and the late Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., speaks during a Wednesday ceremony to name rooms on the Senate side of the Capitol after her and the late Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 8, 2022 at 7:52pm

Barbara Mikulski spent a lot of time in Senate room 115 during her time in Congress, and now she’s not leaving. 

A new wooden sign hangs by the door, bearing her name in golden letters. Not far away is another newly christened room, this one honoring the woman she eclipsed as the longest-serving female senator.

These two spaces, the Barbara Mikulski room and the Margaret Chase Smith room, are the first named for female senators at the Capitol. 

“All of the podiums were built for guys who were 6-foot-2, and I had to use my stool for 30 years,” Mikulski said Wednesday at a packed dedication ceremony. “When I came into this beautiful room to get a look, I thought, ‘My God, finally … I have a podium of my own.’”

Mikulski began her career in the House in 1977 and went on to serve three decades in the Senate, retiring in 2017. Standing under 5 feet, she was quick to correct those who underestimated her.

“Architecture tells a lot about the Senate,” the Maryland Democrat said at the ceremony, recalling the state of play when she first took office — no women in the gym, no women’s bathroom near the Senate floor and no rooms named after women.

“One day they let me sneak a look, and I was glad I couldn’t go to the gym,” she joked.

She praised the “grit” of the other honoree, saying while she and Smith belonged to different parties, they had a few things in common. “It’s not how long you serve, but how well you serve,” she said.

After her husband died in 1940, Smith won a special election to replace him in the House and eventually moved to the Senate, serving 24 years. She died in 1995.

The two rooms join dozens of others in the Capitol complex named after dignitaries, including a few named after women who served in the House.

The first came in 1991, when the Congressional Ladies Retiring Room was renamed the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room. The room itself was a hard-fought win by the 17 women who shared a single lavatory in the early 1960s and sought to have more space.

More recently, a cloakroom was renamed to honor former Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was gravely wounded in 2011 when a gunman opened fire at one of her events in Tucson.

The new Mikulski room sits to the right of the Senate’s carriage entrance. It’s been the site of all manner of events, from lunches and press conferences to late-night negotiations. 

The push to name rooms after female senators came in 2020, led by Senate Rules Committee leaders Roy Blunt and Amy Klobuchar. The Senate adopted the resolution in December of that year by unanimous consent.

“No one voted against you, not even Rand Paul,” joked Klobuchar.

To date, 58 women have served in the Senate. This Congress began with a record-setting 120 women in the House and 24 in the Senate, according to a Pew study. It’s a 50 percent increase from the number of women serving in Congress in 2011, but still well below the share of women in the U.S. population.

For Mikulski, the significance is clear. “I hope that when people see these two rooms … they’re inspired,” she said.