By Erin Spencer Sairam
The U.S. Senate was established over 230 years ago. The first female senator took the oath of office a century ago. Now, for the first time ever, two of the hundreds of rooms at the Capitol building will be formally named for female senators.
Former Senators Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, and Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, each had their names added to rooms on the first floor of the Capitol building this month. Both women were trailblazers in Congress and brought many “firsts” to the Capitol during their time in office.
Smith, who died in 1995 at the age of 98, became the first woman to serve in both legislative chambers following her election to the Senate in 1949 after having served nine years in the House. She would then go on to serve for 24 years in the Senate and was the first woman to represent Maine in both legislative bodies.
Mikulski became the second woman in the nation’s history to serve in both chambers when she was elected to the Senate in 1986 after serving ten years in the House. She retired from the Senate in 2017 as the longest-serving woman in Congress. She continues to hold that record today.
The tradition of honoring lawmakers with dedicated Capitol rooms dates back to the 1950s, when a bell tower was named for the late Senate Republican Majority Leader Robert Taft. Since then, dozens of House and Senate rooms have been bestowed with names. Some of the rooms honor former presidents who once served in Congress. Many were designated in the name of long-serving and high-profile legislators. In recent years, some of the dedicated rooms, such as the room named after former Senator Strom Thurmond, have drawn criticism.
Not all of the rooms are named after lawmakers, though. One Capitol dining room is named after Ernest Petinaud, a head waiter who worked for the House for many years. Another Capitol employee, Gabriel Zimmerman, a staffer who died in the shooting that killed five others and wounded 13, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, has a room named in his memory.
Currently, two House rooms are named after women. In 1990, the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room became the first room named after a woman. Boggs was a representative from Louisiana who served 18 years in the House as a strong advocate for women’s equality. In 2017, six years after her former staffer was recognized with a dedicated room, the Democratic Cloakroom in the Hall of the House of Representatives was named after Giffords for her service in office.
Senators Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, led the resolution to add the names of female senators to the list for the first time. It passed unanimously in December of 2020, designating S-115 as the “U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski Room” and S-124 as the “U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith Room.” The text of the resolution details the many contributions both Smith and Mikulski made to Congress.
Smith was the first woman to hold a leadership position in the Senate as chair of the Republican conference. She was the first woman ranking member on several committees and one of the first to speak out against McCarthyism in the Senate chamber. Throughout her career, she championed legislation for women and members of the military and their families.
Mikulski became the first woman to hold a Democratic leadership position in the Senate as Democratic conference secretary. She served as the first chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and, through her legislation, focused on issues such as education, pay equity, women’s health, and justice. She was known to be a mentor and leader among the women in Congress and, in 1993, led the “Pantsuit Rebellion,” paving the way for female lawmakers to wear pants on the House and Senate floors.
Earlier this month, Mikulski, along with former colleagues and staffers, joined Klobuchar, Blunt and several other ranking members of Congress for a special bipartisan dedication ceremony for the newly renamed Senate rooms.
“I am so honored to be celebrating the dedication of the Barbara Mikulski Room and the Margaret Chase Smith Room in the Senate. My genuine thanks for doing this, because I know this is truly a very huge honor,” said Mikulski in a statement. “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. 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.”