WASHINGTON – Sen. Amy Klobuchar noticed right away as the male senators glanced around, wondering how their bipartisan prayer breakfast meeting room had all these pictures of women, powerful women.
Where, they wondered, did all this come from?
“Well, this is the Barbara Mikulski room now,” the Democrat from Minnesota told them.
For the first time in more than 230 years of Senate history, two rooms were formally named last week in honor of women: Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, and who retired at the end of 2016 as the longest-serving female senator, and the late Margaret Chase Smith, Republican from Maine – and the first woman to win election to the House and the Senate, and who stood up to McCarthyism in the 1950s.
Klobuchar, who oversaw the effort as chair of the Senate Rules Committee, recognizes that naming a couple of rooms on the U.S. Capitol’s first floor is not exactly a major break-the-glass-ceiling moment for women’s rights. But, along with a few other initiatives, it’s a symbolic effort meant to demonstrate that women’s places are in the House and the Senate, as well as the vice presidency, the Supreme Court and, one day, the White House.
“There are little girls walking around these places all the time,” Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, said in an interview inside the Chase Smith Room, which she has turned into a small museum of women’s advancement in the Capitol. “And if all they see are guys, this isn’t their home.”
In recent years, Klobuchar worked with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who reveres Chase Smith as her political idol, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to work on these efforts to elevate female figures around the Senate. They have passed legislation to place busts of two groundbreaking Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, inside the Capitol.
Klobuchar connects this effort to the other side of the movement to remove statues of Confederate figures and other controversial figures from history, to create a positive vision of history.
“So it isn’t just about taking statues down, which is meritorious in many cases, but that’s where all our focus is – I think we have to add things,” Klobuchar said.
The patriarchy is alive and well throughout the Capitol, where there are roughly 540 rooms, 25 of them named in honor of a historic figure. Before these two Senate rooms were named, just two on the House side were named after women: Gabrielle Giffords, the Democratic lawmaker injured in a 2011 mass shooting in the Tucson area, and the late Lindy Boggs, D-La., who served in the House and as an ambassador.
The room named for Giffords is also named for Leo Ryan, D-Calif., killed in 1978 when he was shot during an investigation of the Jonestown settlement in Guyana. The Boggs room for years held the only restroom available to female lawmakers – a long walk from the House floor.
One day it hit Klobuchar: A couple of times a week, each Senate caucus gathers in the Mike Mansfield Room or the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room, named after former Democratic majority leaders, whose portraits look down on senators. Across the hall from the Mansfield Room is the Robert J. Dole balcony, named for the late Republican from Kansas who served as majority leader. Down the corridor is the Strom Thurmond Room, named after the late South Carolina Republican whose racist history stirs up some angst among today’s senators.
All six office buildings, three on each side of the Capitol, are named for men who served in the House and Senate. Some senators have proposed renaming the Richard Russell Senate Office Building, because of the late senator’s support of segregation, but their choice to replace the Democrat from Georgia is another man: the late John McCain, R-Arizona.
Three brothers who served in the Senate – John, Robert and Edward M. Kennedy – have the vast, historic caucus room in the Russell building named in their honor.
The Senate Agriculture Committee, which hangs portraits of former chairmen in its hearing room, is the rare outlier: A portrait of Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who chaired the panel for 16 months, is displayed prominently.
“Architecture tells a lot about the Senate and its views on women,” Mikulski, who served for 30 years and became the first woman to chair the powerful Appropriations Committee, said at last week’s ceremony.
In 1987, when she arrived, there was no women’s restroom near the Senate. The senators-only gym was forbidden for women.
Eventually, Senate officials built a restroom for female senators – with one stall. So about a dozen or so years ago, when the ranks of women had swelled close to 20, Mikulski and Klobuchar served notice to Capitol officials that they wanted an expansion, but the officials initially proposed adding just one or two extra stalls.
“I don’t really think it’s a plan for when we have 50 women senators,” Klobuchar told the officials.
“This is a glass ceiling plan. This creates a glass ceiling for women,” Mikulski told the building officials, according to Klobuchar’s account. She demanded they build a much bigger women’s room, which they did.
Now, 24 women serve in the Senate, among 58 throughout U.S. history.
As their ranks started to grow, Mikulski began hosting regular dinners just for female senators and some special guests, sometimes in the Capitol and sometimes at private spaces in restaurants around town.
They’ve hosted dinners with female justices, another with female Cabinet members. Last year, one of their alumni hosted them at her new home: Vice President Kamala Harris brought the women to the Naval Observatory.
The former senator is the first woman to serve in that role – 46 previous vice presidents have their busts displayed in and around the Senate chamber as a nod to their role as president of the Senate. Two former vice presidents, most recently Mike Pence and President Joe Biden before him, will join them, and Harris eventually will be the first female bust to be dedicated and displayed on the second floor of the Senate.
Klobuchar thinks that some of the most successful legislation of the last few years has come from bipartisan negotiations in which women, many of whom sit ideologically toward the center, have taken the lead. She counts Collins and Murkowski as key allies, including on the $1 trillion infrastructure plan Biden signed into law last fall.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., played a lead role on that, something she is replicating on a proposal to address mass shootings.
“Despite disagreements on some of these things, the friendships we have has helped us to find common ground on a number of things,” Klobuchar said.
Mikulski used more colorful language when talking to other women about working together for bigger change – for instance, during an equal-pay debate in 2012.
“Put on your lipstick, square your shoulders, suit up, and let’s fight for a new American revolution,” she said.