Though political rivals and some male colleagues at first dismissed her as “little Patsy,” Pat Schroeder became the forceful doyenne of American liberals on issues ranging from arms control to women’s reproductive rights during her 24–year House career. Congresswoman Schroeder’s biting wit and political barbs—from her seat on the Armed Services Committee, she once told Pentagon officials that if they were women, they would always be pregnant because they never said “no”—helped to make her a household name and blazed a trail for a new generation of women onto Capitol Hill.1
Patricia Scott was born in Portland, Oregon, on July 30, 1940, daughter of Lee Scott, an aviation insurance salesman, and Bernice Scott, a public–school teacher. Her great–grandfather had served alongside William Jennings Bryan in the Nebraska legislature, lending a reform–populist cast to her political heritage. As part of a military family that moved from post to post, she was raised in Texas, Ohio, and Iowa. Pat Scott earned a pilot’s license and operated her own flying service to pay her college tuition. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1961, a member of Phi Beta Kappa majoring in philosophy, history, and political science. She earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1964, though, as one of just 15 women in a class of more than 500, she felt “submerged in sexism.”2 On August 18, 1962, she married a law school classmate, James Schroeder, and the couple moved to Denver, eventually rearing two children, Scott and Jamie.3 While in law school, a professor told Schroeder that most corporations shunned women lawyers, so she took a job with the federal government for two years as a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board. She later moved into private practice, taught law, and volunteered as counsel for Planned Parenthood.
Schroeder, at her husband’s encouragement, entered the 1972 race for the predominantly Democratic but conservative congressional district encompassing most of Colorado’s capital city of Denver. Running without the support of the state Democratic Party or the Democratic National Committee, Schroeder campaigned as an anti–Vietnam War candidate. When asked to explain the motivation behind her unlikely congressional bid, Schroeder replied, “Among other things the need for honesty in government.” She added, “It’s an issue that women can speak best to—and more should be given the chance.”4 Schroeder ran a grass–roots campaign that seemed as overmatched as those of her political idol, Adlai Stevenson; she believed she would “talk sense to the American people and lose.”5 Voters, however, embraced her antiwar, women’s rights message. She beat out her Democratic primary opponent Clarence Decker by 4,000 votes and, in the general election, defeated first–term incumbent Republican Mike McKevitt with 52 percent of the vote. Schroeder was the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, a state that had granted women the vote in 1893.6 In her subsequent 11 elections, she rarely faced serious opposition, typically garnering more than 60 percent of the vote.7
Claiming her seat in Congress proved thornier than the campaign. One of only 14 women in the House of Representatives, Schroeder confronted a male–dominated institution that frowned not only on her feminist agenda but on her mere presence. She likened the atmosphere there to that of “an over–aged frat house.”8 One male colleague remarked, “This is about Chivas Regal, thousand–dollar bills, Lear jets and beautiful women. Why are you here?”9 Another asked how she could be a mother of two small children and a Member of Congress at the same time. She replied, “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.”10 Still another male colleague sneered, “I hope you aren’t going to be a skinny Bella Abzug!”11
As the second–youngest woman ever elected to Congress (her Harvard Law School classmate Elizabeth Holtzman was the youngest, at 31) and the 32–year–old mother of a six– and a two–year–old, Schroeder received considerable attention from the media, her congressional colleagues, and the general public. Few other women had served in Congress while caring for such young children, and Schroeder did little to hide the fact that she was juggling two occupations, politician and mother. Known to keep diapers in her bag while on the floor of the House and crayons on her office coffee table, she bristled when criticized about her choice to undertake two careers. “One of the problems with being a working mother, whether you’re a Congresswoman or a stenographer or whatever, is that everybody feels perfectly free to come and tell you what they think: ‘I think what you’re doing to your children is terrible.’ ‘I think you should be home.’ They don’t do that to men.”12 Although Schroeder defended her decision to run for political office while caring for her children, she did harbor some doubts early in her career. She recalled that shortly before beginning her first day on the job, she pondered, “My gosh, what’s a mother like me doing here? I’m about to be sworn into Congress and I haven’t even potty–trained my daughter.”13
Schroeder received a rude introduction to the power of entrenched committee chairmen. She sought and earned a seat on the all–male Armed Services Committee because, according to the newly elected Congresswoman, “When men talk about defense, they always claim to be protecting women and children, but they never ask the women and children what they think.”14 Eager to identify and curb defense appropriations which, at the time, totaled nearly 40 percent of the national budget, Schroeder represented a minority viewpoint on the conservative Armed Services Committee.15 Infuriated that a young woman sat on his committee, Chairman F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana, a Dixiecrat and 30–year veteran of Congress, made Schroeder share a chair with Ron Dellums, an African–American Democrat from California, during the organizational meeting for the committee. As Schroeder recalled, she and Dellums sat “cheek to cheek” because the chairman declared “that women and blacks were worth only half of one regular Member” and thus deserved only half a seat.16 Dellums later commented that he and Schroeder acted as if sharing a chair was “the most normal thing in the world,” in an effort to undermine Hébert’s obvious attempt to make them uncomfortable. When Schroeder sought a spot on a delegation to a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty disarmament conference on chemical warfare, Hébert declined her request noting, “I wouldn’t send you to represent this committee in a dogfight.”17 Undeterred, Schroeder and her Democratic Caucus colleagues managed to oust Hébert in 1975, during the height of congressional reform efforts which included rules changes that weakened the power of long–standing committee leaders. Schroeder remained on the panel throughout her congressional career.
Representative Schroeder quickly became a driving force in the 1970s and 1980s as Democrats sought to rein in Cold War expenditures. In unison with a more like–minded chairman, Les Aspin of Wisconsin, she fostered an era of Democratic defense budgets that, in Schroeder’s estimate, supported “reasonable strength” rather than “unreasonable redundancy.”18 She also asserted herself as a major advocate for arms control, opposing, among other programs, the MX (“Missile Experimental”) program. Arguing against the philosophy that the U.S. Air Force’s mobile MX rockets would serve as a deterrent to nuclear war, Schroeder suggested instead that “everyone in the world would be more impressed if we didn’t deploy the weapon and showed common sense.”19 Schroeder worked to improve benefits, health care, and living conditions for military personnel, crafting the 1985 Military Family Act and eventually chairing the Subcommittee on Military Installations. Toward the end of her career, she convinced the Armed Services Committee to recommend that women be allowed to fly combat missions. In 1991, Schroeder spearheaded demands for reform in the military after two highly publicized sexual harassment scandals: the navy “Tailhook” and a later case involving an army sergeant’s abuse of female recruits. Schroeder also served as spokesperson for those in Congress who believed that American allies should bear more of the global defense burden.
The area in which Schroeder specialized, however, was women’s rights and reforms affecting the family. In many respects, she made these issues, shared by many middle–class Americans, the blueprint for her work: women’s health care, child rearing, expansion of Social Security benefits, and gender equity in the workplace. She was a vocal pro–choice advocate and a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1977, Schroeder cofounded the Congressional Women’s Caucus, subsequently co–chairing it for 10 years. She helped pass the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which mandated that employers could not dismiss women employees simply because they were pregnant or deny them disability and maternity benefits. Later she created and chaired the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families (which was dismantled in 1995). She also served on the Judiciary Committee and the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, where she eventually chaired the Subcommittee on Civil Service. In 1993, Schroeder scored her biggest legislative successes with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act. For nearly a decade, she had toiled on the Family and Medical Leave Act, which in its final form provided job protection of up to 18 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a newborn, sick child, or parent.
By the late 1980s, Schroeder was one of the most recognizable faces on Capitol Hill, battling Republicans on military spending, reproductive rights, or workplace reform measures. She became a master at using the media to publicize an issue, often in staunchly partisan terms. Schroeder dubbed President Ronald Reagan the “Teflon President,” a reference to his popularity despite high–profile scandals such as the Iran–Contra Affair. She chaired Senator Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1987 before it fell apart because of revelations of his marital infidelities. Incensed at Hart’s behavior, Schroeder decided for a brief time to seek the Democratic nomination for President, promising a “rendezvous with reality” that would bring to center the issues of underrepresented Americans.20 She broke down while announcing her withdrawal, however, spurring many feminists to charge her with undermining women’s political advances with her emotional display. Those criticisms proved spurious, since in 1992 Schroeder, as the House’s elder stateswoman, welcomed a record number of women elected in the “Year of the Woman.” She described the event as an “American perestroika.”21
Despite being the longest–serving woman in the House at the time of her retirement, Schroeder never chaired a full committee. In line to become chair of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, Schroeder lost the opportunity at a leadership position when Republicans eliminated the panel once they gained control of the House after a 40–year hiatus. As a Member of the minority party, Schroeder lost much of her institutional power base when the switch in power occurred in the 104th Congress (1995–1997). No longer the chair of any subcommittees, she also failed to earn the distinction of Ranking Democrat on any House committees.22
Though she held less political influence than in previous terms, Schroeder remained in the spotlight due to her public disputes with newly elected Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich of Georgia. On opposite ends of the political spectrum, both politicians looked to the media to promote the interests of their respective parties and clashed on an array of issues. Schroeder blamed Gingrich for impairing the clout of the Congressional Women’s Caucus by dismantling its staff, and she was one of the key players in the ethics investigation against the Speaker during the mid–1990s. Apparently frustrated by the growing partisan nature of the House, Schroeder ignored the pleas of her husband and liberal colleagues to seek re–election for a 13th term, commenting, “I always said I wasn’t going to be here for life, and life was ticking by.”23 Shortly before leaving office, Schroeder revealed her dissatisfaction with the progression of gender equality in Congress. “I think women still should never kid themselves that they’re going to come [to Congress] and be part of the team. And you ought to come here with a very clear definition of what it is you want to do, and that you will not be deterred. There’s a whole group of little harpies out there every day trying to talk you out of it. They really don’t want you pushing the envelope, because then it becomes choose–up–sides time for everybody.”24
After a brief teaching stint at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Schroeder was appointed president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers in June 1997. She also was selected to lead a multi–year study for the Institute on Civil Society to identify and promote social programs to encourage social cohesion and restore a sense of community for Americans.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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