ANNAPOLIS, Md.— When Maryland's Barbara Mikulski was first sworn in as a U.S. senator in 1987, she entered what she described as "a guys' club," a chamber where senators socialized in a gym off-limits to her and the only other female senator then, Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas.
Mikulski, a Democrat who will become the longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, says in her characteristically blunt style that she was never much of a jock anyway.
"For us, it's not about whether we had a locker room," Mikulski, 74, said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. "It's whether we had a committee room, and we now have them."
She added, "We had to work very hard to get on the committees of power."
Mikulski, who was a Baltimore congresswoman before being elected to the Senate, says she felt she had established a reputation as a hard worker and a good committee member that first Senate year by the time of her hometown Baltimore Orioles' opening day.
She said she believes her plainspoken, wisecracking personality was a powerful tool for breaking down barriers.
"The first thing they found out is that I had a great sense of humor, and if it's anything that the men in the Senate liked was someone who could banter and trade one-liners with them, so I was known for a good joke, you know, a good retort, and I was a good listener to them," Mikulski said.
The one-liners and no-nonsense approach also clicked with constituents.
The daughter of a Baltimore grocer and social worker, she first gained recognition in 1970 when she successfully fought to block an interstate highway project through the city's historic Fells Point neighborhood. Mikulski captured a U.S. House seat in 1976, and was easily re-elected four times in a heavily Democratic district. She also was re-elected to her Senate seat with big majorities — in 1992, 1998, 2004 and last year.
Mikulski noted that 1992 was a pivotal year for women in the Senate, when she was re-elected and four other female Democratic candidates won seats.
"We showed it's not about gender," Mikulski said. "It's about agenda."
When Mikulski is sworn in for a fifth term Wednesday, she will have served in the Senate for more time than the previous longest-serving female senator, Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who represented Maine for 24 years. She served until 1973.
Reflecting on when she was one of two female senators, Mikulski says she was never interested in being a celebrity because of her status. She credited male colleagues such as then-Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a fellow Maryland Democrat, with helping her. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
"Senator Paul Sarbanes not only helped me get very good committee assignments, but showed me those invisible channels and hallways of power that no woman — no Democratic woman — had ever gone before," Mikulski said.
Mikulski became the first female Democrat to serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat who succeeded Sarbanes, said Mikulski's candor and willingness to get straight to the point make her a highly effective senator. "She has like a laser beam to the center of a problem," he said.
Over the years, Mikulski has been thrilled to see the ranks of influential female senators grow. She said female senators from both parties still see each other outside the Capitol.
"We get together now every other month for dinners for friendship and for fellowship, saying that no matter what in this atmosphere of very prickly partisanship, we're going to work to try to have a zone of civility," Mikulski said. "Most of the time, we're pretty successful."
Before Mikulski's election, 15 women had served in the Senate. Now the number who have held a Senate seat stands at 38, including the current 17 female senators.
Mikulski said with pride: "Right now there are more women serving right this minute than had served in the Senate — than had served in all of American history — when I arrived."