In her winning 1986 campaign, the Maryland Democrat spoke out against 'code words' that held people back
When Barbara Mikulski — the 78-year-old Maryland Democrat and longest serving woman in Congress, who announced Monday that she will retire in 2016 — ran for Senate in 1986, some people told her she didn’t look like a Senator.
Though she had already spent a decade in Congress, and though she had gotten her start as a community organizer and councilwoman in Baltimore, and though her run for Senate was one of three national contests that year in which both major candidates were women, gender and appearance still played into coverage of the race.
But, as Mikulski made clear, conversation about whether she or any of the other female candidates looked like voters’ ideas of what a politician should be was just a way to keep that image from changing. As TIME wrote then:
In Maryland, Mikulski and [Republican nominee Linda Chavez] are waging tough, no-holds-barred campaigns. Although both women come from ethnic, working-class backgrounds, ”we are as different as two people can be,” says Chavez, 39, a cool Hispanic American who is married and makes much of being the mother of three sons. Mikulski, 50, is single, a self-styled scrapper with the sturdy perseverance of a tugboat. She sharply turns aside comments that she does not ”look senatorial.” Says the candidate: ”A lot of Americans, black or white or female, are always told that they don’t look the part. It’s one of the oldest code words.”
Mikulkski won and became the first female Democrat to hold a seat in the Senate not previously held by her husband. As TIME put it back then, she had abandoned “petticoat politics” — an appropriate tactic for the woman who brought the pantsuit to the Senate.
Read the full 1986 story, here in the TIME Vault: No More Petticoat Politics