We are sorely in need of some cheerful news out of Washington, so I’m going to tell you Barbara Mikulski’s story about the Senate bathrooms.
Almost every veteran woman legislator, in every level of government, has a story about the shortage of bathroom facilities at work. Really, there needs to be a book on this. It could have a happy ending, and none of the chapters would involve Russian attempts to manipulate an election.
Mikulski, 80, has served in Congress longer than any other woman in history. She’s retiring this month after representing Maryland for 30 years in the Senate. Before that she spent 10 years in the House. She was a social worker who got into Democratic politics during a battle to stop a planned highway that was threatening the ethnic Baltimore neighborhoods she loved. It was an unusual career route at the time, but she was an unusual person.
“One of the things they said was that I didn’t look the part,” Mikulski, who is 4-foot-11, recalled. “You know, chunky and I have a definite blue-collar style, so I wasn’t to the manner born, to the trust fund inherited.”
The classic way for a woman to win a seat in the Senate was to follow a famous male relative. Many of her predecessors were widows who succeeded their husbands. Nancy Kassebaum, the only other woman in the Senate when Mikulski arrived, was the daughter of the Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon.
When the Senate was in session and Kassebaum needed to use the bathroom, she had to stand in line at the women’s room used by the tourists.
Mikulski immediately eyed a lounge that was set aside for the senators’ wives. It was, she recalled in an interview, a memento of the days “when women would come over dressed in hats and gloves and sit adoringly listening to their husbands.”
Once she explained her plight, the wives invited Mikulski and Kassebaum to use their lounge, which became their refuge until 1992. That was when four new women were elected to the Senate, making a grand total of six. The media announced “the Year of the Women.” It was a title that Mikulski took with, um, a grain of salt: “Wow, we get our own year … like the Year of the Caribou, the Year of the Mushroom, the Year of the Asparagus.”
They also got their own very modest two-stall bathroom. By 2013 there were 20 women in the Senate and waiting lines in the loo. Mikulski recalled that the Rules Committee, which controlled such matters, wanted to create an elegant place with a chandelier and little sinks with slim legs.
“We wanted low cost. We didn’t want anything fancy or expensive, but we wanted maximum functionality — the way women use a bathroom and not the way men think women use a bathroom,” she recounted.
In the end, functionality won. The new bathroom had two more stalls, an extra sink and shelves in which each senator had her own basket to store combs, brushes, makeup, whatever.
“And so when I leave they'll retire my basket. … It’s kind of like retiring your jersey,” Mikulski said, rather proudly.
In Washington, Mikulski has always exhibited a highly unusual combination of feistiness and bipartisanship. Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, recalled that when she arrived, Mikulski immediately reached out.
“She didn’t know me from Adam – or perhaps I should say from Eve,” Collins said in a recent tribute on the Senate floor. “Yet, despite the difference in our seniority, our states and our parties, she took me under her wing. … I was so grateful for her kindness and her wisdom. … She taught me the ropes of the appropriations process and instituted regular bipartisan dinners for the women of the Senate.”
Those dinners have become famous — especially since the male side of the chamber has become more and more viciously partisan. In the beginning, they were held in a Senate room named after the late Strom Thurmond, a notorious pincher of ladies’ bottoms.
“I know, the irony,” Olympia Snowe, the former senator from Maine, once told me.
Next session, women will compose 19.5 percent of Congress.
“We went from 104 to 104 — down one in the House, up one in the Senate,” reported Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.
Obviously we could do better, but on the plus side, we’re just a sliver away from passing Equatorial Guinea when it comes to gender diversity in the nation’s legislature.
Recently Mikulski and Collins invited their female colleagues for coffee, to welcome the latest generation of newcomers. It was a final gesture of outreach as Mikulski moved on into Senate history.
She deserves some kind of permanent memorial. Maybe they could put a plaque in that bathroom. Or better yet, they could rename the Strom Thurmond Room in her honor.