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The U.S. Capitol has named two rooms after female senators for the first time ever

Former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., surrounded by senators, jokes about having a podium her size during the room dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. She retired in 2017 after 45 years in Congress.
Susan Walsh
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AP
Former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., surrounded by senators, jokes about having a podium her size during the room dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. She retired in 2017 after 45 years in Congress.

The U.S. Capitol building has more than 540 rooms, dozens of which are named after distinguished lawmakers from throughout history. But none bore the names of women senators — until last week.

On June 8, a bipartisan group of senators held a ceremony dedicating two of the Capitol's rooms to trailblazing former Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine.

Smith, who died in 1995, was the first woman to win election to both the U.S. House and Senate. Mikulski still holds the title of longest-serving woman in Congress after retiring in 2017 after 45 years. She was present at the June 8 event, along with several of her longtime colleagues and former staffers.

"I would hope that when people see these two rooms ... that they are inspired today about service, about duty, about respect for the Constitution and for each other," Mikulski said in a statement. "I am very grateful to have a room of my own in the United States Senate, but I want to share it with all of you and the American people."

The dedication of the two rooms — S-115 and S-124 — was made possible by a resolution led by Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and passed unanimously by the Senate in December 2020.

The text of the resolution makes clear that these women were selected not just because they were the first or longest-serving, but because of their numerous contributions to the Senate and to the American public.

"Both senators served as committee and party leaders, and were tireless advocates for the issues they cared about," Blunt said. "I hope that seeing their names on these two rooms will inspire future generations of women to follow their lead and leave their mark on Congress."

Mikulski championed women's issues in and outside of the Senate

People attend a ceremony in a room dedicated to former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. Another room was dedicated to the late former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine.
Susan Walsh / AP
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AP
People attend a ceremony in a room dedicated to former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on June 8. Another room was dedicated to the late former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine.

Mikulski, a trained social worker, won her first election to the Baltimore City Council in 1971 and a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives five years later. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, becoming the first Democratic women senator not elected as a replacement for her spouse.

Mikulski championed policy on a range of issues including higher education, pay equality, space, Alzheimer's research, maritime issues and women's health. She led several committees, including appropriations (of which she was the first female chair) and transportation, housing and urban development.

Mikulski also turned her attention to women's issues within her workplace. Notably, any female senators who wear slacks to work have Mikulski to thank — she led the "Pantsuit Rebellion of 1993," paving the way for changes to the Senate dress code. She also mentored other female senators over the years as the self-appointed "dean of the Senate women."

Those numbers increased significantly during Mikulski's tenure: There was just one other female senator when she arrived in 1987, and 20 when she announced in 2015 that she wouldn't seek reelection.

Mikulski reflected on those changes in a 2015 interview with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, in which she explained that she wanted to be the first of many, not the first and only.

That's why she partnered with groups to try to get more Democratic women elected in the Senate, and ran workshops for lawmakers on how to be successful once they got there. She described those as offering "a nuts-and-bolts set of advice" about how to do things like move a bill and get on the right committee.

Mikulski acknowledged there is a lot of weight on their shoulders, suggesting that women in the Senate aren't just representing their states, but their gender as well.

"When I came, I got letters from all over America from women, where I became their senator," she explained. "So my advice is, always stay close to your constituents. And make sure you learn the rules of the game and play better and harder than everybody else."

Senators attending the event described Mikulski as an effective community organizer, inspiring trailblazer and dedicated public servant who made a lasting impact on both the institution and the country.

Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Mikulski's successor, noted in a statement that Marylanders know that "when Senator Barb is with you, the Force is with you." (She's made no secret of her love of the franchise, often quoting Star Wars in speeches and even giving Van Hollen a plastic lightsaber after his election.) Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he worked with Mikulski for years in both chambers, describing her as "a brilliant legislator, a generous colleague, and a vital part of our caucus."

The new Mikulski room is on the first floor of the Senate side of the Capitol, the Baltimore Sun reports. It's small but positioned near important meeting rooms, with gold walls, high ceilings and memorabilia including a Wheaties box with Mikulski's photo and a picture of her receiving the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-president Barack Obama.

"It is fitting that powerful people will come into this room under the watchful eyes of Senator Mikulski," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "Her legacy and knowledge continues on to the next generation of community leaders."

Smith famously stood up to to McCarthy, her GOP colleague

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), pictured in Washington in March 1964. She was the first woman to win election to both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, where she served for more than two decades.
Henry Burroughs / AP
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AP
Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, pictured in Washington in March 1964. She was the first woman to win election to both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, where she served for more than two decades.

The Maine Republican entered politics in the 1940s after her husband, U.S. Rep. Clyde Smith, fell ill with a heart condition and decided not to run for reelection.

He had encouraged Smith to run for his seat in the general election — and in 1940 she did just that, going on to win the Republican primary, uncontested special election and reelection for a full term, all in quick succession.

After more than four terms in the House, Smith served in the U.S. Senate from 1949 to 1973 and was often the only woman in the institution during that time. In fact, for decades she was forced to run downstairs and line up with tourists in order to use the women's public restroom, since leaders didn't agree to install a women's bathroom adjacent to the Senate floor until the 1992's "Year of the Woman," when 54 female legislators were elected to Congress.

Smith focused on issues of foreign policy and military affairs, establishing a reputation as a tough legislator on the Senate Armed Services Committee (one of the several committees on which she served as the first woman).

One of Smith's career-defining accomplishments came in 1950, when she took to the Senate floor as a freshman to denounce what she described as the dangerous accusations of her Republican colleague, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. She was one of the first senators to do so.

"Margaret Chase Smith taking on Joe McCarthy is one of those items in the history books that is extremely important," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was at the ceremony, remarked in a statement.

The speech, later called a "Declaration of Conscience," was well-received nationally but not by her party, which removed her from one committee and dropped her seniority on another. But Smith managed to recover politically and serve for two more busy decades.

In 1964, she became the first woman to actively seek the presidential nomination of a major political party — a symbolic step even though she lost to Barry Goldwater. She retired in 1973 after losing her bid for a fifth consecutive term (among other reasons, voters reportedly considered her too old to serve at age 74).

Smith then oversaw the construction of the Margaret Chase Smith Library Center, which the House says is the first of its kind to focus on the papers of a female member of Congress, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush in 1989. She died in 1995 at the age of 97.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who was part of the ceremony, described Smith as an "extraordinary lawmaker, an unparalleled trailblazer, and a dear friend."

"She brought the Maine values of service over party and patriotism to Washington, including in her Declaration of Conscience — one of the greatest and most important speeches in American history," he added. "There is no one more deserving of this honor, and I look forward to seeing her legacy live on in our nation's Capitol through this room."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 16, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the room dedication ceremony happened Wednesday of this week. It happened Wednesday of last week, June 8.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.