The Senate's 'iron woman'

The longest-serving female senator in U.S. history will receive another illustrious distinction to her name this fall, which is when Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

“Her body of work, the fact that she’s now the longest-serving female senator, her efforts on behalf of educational initiatives, veterans’ affairs, women’s health issues, I think all combined to make her an exceptional candidate,” said Christine Moulton, executive director of the Hall.

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“I am so honored to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame,” Mikulski wrote in an e-mail to The Hill. “My fellow inductees inspire women around the world with their strength, courage and commitment to service.”

Among the other 2011 inductees are such trailblazers as jazz great Billie Holiday and civil rights advocate Coretta Scott King. This year’s class also features a familiar face for the Maryland senator: that of the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which passed in 2009 and for which Mikulski was a co-sponsor.

According to Moulton, it was purely serendipitous that both Mikulski and Ledbetter — a former manager with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. who sued after discovering she earned considerably less money than her male colleagues — were chosen for induction in the same year. Ledbetter said she was honored to share the spotlight with the senator.

“I just can’t tell you how proud and humbled I am to be going in with Sen. Mikulski, because she’s a very dynamic person and she cares about people and the people that she represents,” Ledbetter said.

Mikulski “was always pushing me out in front and helping me with the bill, and I’ve just been so grateful for her leadership and her strong voice to get the bill passed,” she added.

The senator echoed the sentiment, expressing pride in leading the floor fight in the Senate to pass the Fair Pay Act.

“For three years, Lilly Ledbetter and I stood together, fighting the battle against wage discrimination,” Mikulski wrote. Ledbetter “fought for the pay she deserved — and to make sure it didn’t happen to other women.”

Women’s rights are just one cause the senator has committed to in her career. She was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 and served there until winning election to the Senate in 1986. Mikulski was reelected to a fifth Senate term last year.

The first female Democratic senator elected in her own right, Mikulski serves as the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. She is also a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence.

During her tenure, the senator has been a staunch advocate for women’s health issues, helping to create the Office of Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health.

Mikulski has also encouraged public service, introducing legislation that led to the creation of AmeriCorps. Countless students have also benefited from Mikulski’s work to make education more affordable by increasing Federal Pell Grants and creating scholarship and loan-forgiveness programs.

In her home state of Maryland, Mikulski has labored to create and sustain jobs in both the public and private sectors, including expanding military bases in the state and working to bring U.S. Cyber Command to the area.

“We work very closely together to help bring jobs to Maryland,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said of Mikulski. “We work on a lot of joint issues together, and we work as a team. We call it Team Maryland, and she’s our leader of Team Maryland.

“I’m really happy for her. I think she deserves all the recognition she’s getting, because she’s paid her dues, she’s worked hard, she’s represented the state of Maryland well,” Ruppersberger added. “And I’m really happy to say she’s my senator.”

Mikulski’s fellow female lawmakers were also quick to offer their praise.

“When I got sworn in … [Mikulski] came up to me and said, ‘You need a woman next to you,’ and she just stepped right in and walked down,” said Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). “She’s really a great person welcoming new female senators into the fray, and I think she definitely deserves this.”

Fellow longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) recalled how Mikulski welcomed her to Congress.

“When I came to the Senate, there were just two women … One was Sen. Mikulski, and the other was Sen. Kassebaum,” she said, referring to former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.). “Sen. Mikulski was widely known and heralded as the dean of the women in the Senate. She was helpful to those of us running in 1992, and she has carried out that role ever since.”

The formal induction for the National Women’s Hall of Fame’s 2011 class of inductees is scheduled to take place Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

“Baltimore is no stranger to Hall of Famers — like [Major League Baseball legend] Cal Ripken, the Iron Man. You might say I’m the Iron Woman,” Mikulski wrote of the honor. “That’s how we do it in Baltimore — go to work every day and get the job done.

“For me, it’s not how long I serve, but how well I serve,” she added. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.”