By Cassandra Sottile
Elm Staff Writer
On Friday, March 3, President Sheila Bair announced two influential and iconic women of Washington D.C., retired Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski and journalist Cokie Roberts, as part of the Harwood Series in American Journalism. This was the kickoff of the women’s centennial event to lead up to the 100-year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment in 2020.
John Harwood of CNBC introduced the two women who have paved the way for a new wave of female leaders. He described Roberts as, “a role model who was authoritative, held a deep knowledge of her subject, and sympathetic understanding of humans, a hallmark of hers he admired.”
Sen. Mikulski was likewise heralded for being ahead of her time in 1992, the Year of Women.
“By the time more women were elected to Congress in 1992, Sen. Mikulski was up for re-election, meaning she was six years ahead. Again in 2004, Sen. Mikulski was ahead of the time; Barack Obama had just won a Senate seat of Alan Keys, whom Sen. Mikulski had already beaten in 1992,” Harwood said.
Harwood went on to quote from Sen. Mikulski’s notable 1970 speech “Ethnic America:” “The ethnic American is sick of being stereotyped as a racist and dullard by phony white liberals, pseudo black militants, and patronizing bureaucrats. He pays the bill for every major government program and gets nothing or little in the way of return. Tricked by the political rhetoric of the illusionary funding for black-oriented social programs, he turns his anger to race — when he himself is the victim of class prejudice.”
Following his introduction of the two women, Roberts interviewed Sen. Mikulski, questioning her about her life and career in politics. Sen. Mikulski, who served with Roberts’ mother, Lindy Boggs, in the House of Representatives, began with her Baltimore origins and how she grew up with a sense of service.
“I was educated by the nuns. My father owned a small grocery store and would always help those in need of food. So I grew up very community and philanthropy- minded,” Sen. Mikulski said.
This sense of service was seen in 1968, when Sen. Mikulski fought City Hall to prevent the construction of a 16-lane highway that would cut through Little Italy and West Side of Baltimore.
“They said no women could win City Council, but never doubt that coalition can win,” Sen. Mikulski said.
In 1976, Sen. Mikulski was elected to Congress, where she formed a women’s caucus with other female senators like Olympia Snow of Maine.
“Every issue is a women’s issue. It was not a matter of gender, but of an agenda,” Sen. Mikulski said. Congressman and founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus Parren Mitchell of Baltimore gave her advice on how to get started, advice that she always remembered.
“He asked me if I wanted power or glory. He said, ‘If you want glory, then let’s get you on a committee, but if you want power, find an issue that you can make a difference for in your term.’”
Sen. Mikulski, who has a reputation for having a strong will and being outspoken, often took advice from her Senate mentors, Ted Kennedy and Bob Bird, on the rules of the Senate and how to charge ahead.
By the time the Year of Women came in 1992, Sen. Mikulski and the newly elected women of Congress had members on a variety of committees, from National Security to Finance. Called the Women of the Senate, they began holding Senate dinners for the female members of Congress, which is now in its 23 year.
Sen. Mikulski crossed party lines and not just during the Senate Dinners, but numerous times in her political career. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a conservative from Texas, approached Sen. Mikulski for her help with a bill that would balance economic empowerment for those both in the marketplace and those who stayed at home.
At the conclusion of Roberts’s interview, the floor was opened up to student and audience member questions.
Junior Molly Igoe asked Roberts about her book “Founding Mothers” and the role and power of first ladies, specifically Melania Trump.
“Melania [Trump] deserves the opportunity to show that she can do the job. She has taken on this role while raising her young son, and needs time to find the issue that is important to her. This is a tradition that started with Martha Washington, who at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, began lobbying for veterans’ benefits since she stayed with the troops every winter of the war, especially at Valley Forge. She will eventually find where her voice makes the most difference and the biggest impact,” Roberts said.
Sen. Mikulski echoed Roberts’ s sentiments. “The press is looking for a mistake. She [Melania] will be judged by her figure and her fashion and face criticism no matter what. But none of that should matter. Give her a chance to raise her son and let her find her way.”
When asked about her greatest accomplishment as a senator and what she would have liked to accomplish, Sen. Mikulski said, “Employment and an education system to match a fair economic system. There is still a challenge of student debt, even with the AmeriCorps program. One thing you should never do, though, is underestimate the power of hearing from constituents. They helped save funding for AmeriCorps and roused attention for ‘drive-by deliveries’ at hospitals.”
Sen. Mikulski’s closing remarks regarded the reason for her retirement from the Senate.
“I loved my job, but we are in a new century. I thought we would see the end of genocide and war. I’ve done my fair share, now it’s time for those who will live the rest of the century to be involved and help shape it, whether it’s by running for local, state, or federal office, or supporting a candidate.”
To conclude the talk, President Sheila Bair presented both Roberts and Barbara Sen. Mikulski with WC Awards of Excellence.
“Veteran journalist and news correspondent Cokie Roberts is a true example of truth in American journalism. She is deeply committed to the American democratic system. She was awarded the Living Legend award by the Library of Congress in 2008.
“Sen. Mikulski had many firsts in her career: the first woman elected to Congress who did not succeed her husband’s chair, the first woman to chair the House Appropriations Committee, and the first woman to spark ‘Pantsuit Nation.’ To quote William Shakespeare, ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce,’” she said.
Sen. Mikulski, who was last on the College campus for President Bair’s induction, was awarded the Women’s Inaugural Centennial Citation and a framed picture of Eleanor Roosevelt receiving her honorary degree from WC in 1942.
The event ended with the words of Sen. Mikulski, “Instead of being the first and only, I wish to be the first of many.”