June 11, 2012 12:00 PM

Olympia Snowe is not going to take it anymore. “Washington is broken,” says the three-term Republican senator from Maine. She sighs beside her government-issued desk piled high with briefing books and files (and a jar of Twizzlers) that suggest all the work left to tackle. But, she says, “I don’t know what more can be accomplished here.” When Snowe-patrician, soft-spoken, respected on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle-makes a declaration like that, it gets attention. But to really drive home her point, she quit. Though Snowe, 65, likely would have been a sure bet for reelection in November, earlier this year she announced she would give up her 33-year career in government, due to partisan rancor and gridlock. “It’s a sad commentary when someone as dedicated as Olympia is no longer willing to put up a fight,” says former Sen. Tom Daschle, Democrat cofounder of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Snowe, who spoke with PEOPLE’s Sandra Sobieraj Westfall, says she still has fight left in her-“that’s my Spartan heritage.” That spirit has stood her in good stead throughout a life unusually marked by tragedy. She was an 8-year-old girl when breast cancer took her mother, 9 when she lost her father to heart disease, 15 when the uncle raising her died and a new bride when her husband was killed in a car wreck. Still, she not only persevered but made her mark in Congress with her centrism and a skill for bringing issues of concern to women to the floor. How? “You just keep going,” she says with the stoicism of her native Maine.

Why not stay?

It’s dysfunctional here. From time to time you have glimmers of regular business being conducted, but we’re not dealing with substantive issues like taxes that can make a profound difference for the economy. No one has any tolerance for sifting through issues for the merits of an idea. You’re either red or blue, MSNBC or Fox News, what I describe as “High Noon at the OK Corral,” and I don’t see it changing much in the short term.

How did your colleagues react?

Very gracious, very kind. I wasn’t intending to surprise people, to be honest. I think the essence of public service is solving problems, and there are many good people here who share that desire. What you see here may be collegial, but it’s not transpiring into results. People have a different posture when they go on television or through the social media, speaking to their constituency who are like-minded.

How was it better when you started as a House member in 1979?

You put people in a room and worked it out. Republicans and Democrats-whatever it took to figure out what worked, considering different views.

As one of the first few women in Congress, were you ever asked to make coffee in those talks?

[Laughs] Nothing that overt. When I served in the House, I wore skirts every day-it’s hard to imagine. But in 1979 we women were only 16 out of 435 [now there are 76, plus 17 in the Senate]. To find a ladies’ restroom, you had to walk miles! I realized that if I didn’t focus on women’s issues, who would? Pat Schroeder and I cochaired the Congresswomen’s Caucus that, to its credit, was bipartisan. There were differences on abortion, but we set those aside to work on issues that mattered to women and to eliminate inequities. We fought mightily and achieved much.

Were you having flashbacks when contraception was front-burner this year, debated by an all-male congressional panel?

It’s disheartening. I regret the discussion and the way it occurred. The debate degraded the subject, took us way back. Having been on the front lines for so long, it is disconcerting that we’re reviving debates we thought had been put to rest.

What will you miss here?

I’ll miss my staff, everybody I work with. And a statue in the Rotunda affectionately called “Three Ladies in the Bathtub.” It was created to honor women getting the right to vote but was down in the crypt of the Capitol for 75 years. I worked to get it moved to the Rotunda. They said it was too heavy, it was ugly, cost too much to move. I said it begs the question how all the other statues got in the Rotunda-male statues, I might add.

What’s next for you?

I’d like to visit the Greek island where my father was born, Mytilini. And I hope to work on creating political rewards for people who are willing to work across the aisle. The aunt who raised me after my uncle died always used to say, “Olympia, while you’re sitting there, you could be thinking about all the other things you could be doing.” To my ever-lasting detriment, I can’t just sit anymore. I can’t sit still.

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