The retiring Maryland Democrat was one of the first women to wear pants in the Senate.
The legislative legacy of six-term Sen. Barb Mikulski, who announced Monday she would retire in 2016, is long. The longest-serving woman in Congress, the Maryland Democrat has had a hand in everything from health care to the budget, sponsored the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and helped bring female senators to work together.
But one of her signature achievements is also so mundane today that it’s hard to appreciate: Thanks to Mikulski and former Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, women can wear pants in the Senate.
Here’s how it unfolded, according to a 2011 story from Capitol Hill publication Roll Call:
On weekends, men would often wear more casual togs, like khakis and blazers, yet still, women were expected to don skirts (and the requisite hosiery that go with them). The chamber’s two women at the time, Sens. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), finally devised a protest of sorts. They planned to wear trousers one weekend and told all the female staffers who might come to the floor to do the same.
No man said a word about it, and since then, pantsuits for women are as much a staple of Senate life (see Clinton, Hillary Rodham) as quorum calls and cloture votes.
Mikulski later told CNN that the pants-wearing was a “seismographic event.”
“The Senate parliamentarian had looked at the rules to see if it was OK,” she recalled. “So, I walk on that day and you would have thought I was walking on the moon. It caused a big stir.”
These days, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is able to joke about her “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit,” it’s hard to appreciate the importance of Mikulski’s rebellion. But as Clinton herself noted testily once, male politicians are rarely asked which fashion designers they wear.
Pantsuits are practical, they’re apolitical and they save time and mental energy. President Obama once told Vanity Fair that he only wears either blue or gray suits so that he can save his decision-making for weightier matters.
The pantsuit leveled the playing field for Clinton and other female politicians, and they can thank Mikulski for it.