DemDaily: Remembering Pat Schroeder

March 15, 2023

Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder passed away Monday, bringing to an end the life of a trailblazing, quick-witted feminist pioneer who helped dismantle gender barriers during the women's movement in the 1970s, and redefined the role of women in American politics over more than two decades in Congress.

"The Pledge of Allegiance says '... with liberty and justice for all.' What part of 'all' don't you understand? -- Pat Schroeder

Schroeder (née Scott), who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1961 and Harvard Law School in 1964, where she was one of just 15 women in a class of more than 500. Having earned her pilot's license at age 15, she paid her way through school by running her own flying service.

She married Harvard classmate Jim Schroeder in 1962 and after graduation moved to Denver, Colorado where he joined a law firm and she worked as a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.

As no maternity leave policy existed during the birth of her two children between 1966 and 1970, she worked as a volunteer legal counsel for Planned Parenthood and taught at Colorado colleges.

Schroeder was considered a long-shot candidate for Congress in 1972, but, running on a platform of opposition to the Vietnam War, she unseated freshman Congressman Republican Mike McKevitt who had flipped the long-time Democratic seat the previous year.

She was the first female US Representative elected from Colorado, and, at age 32, the third-youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She was reelected to eleven successive terms.

Asked by one congressman how she could be a mother of two small children and a member of Congress at the same time, Schroeder replied, “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use them both.″

Schroeder was one of just 14 women in Congress when she was elected, and the first to have young children, becoming a national symbol of a successful woman who could balance work and motherhood.

She became the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, where she called for arms control and reduced military spending, and sponsored the 1985 Military Family Act to improve benefits for military personnel. She advocated for opening military jobs to women and was behind the committee's successful 1993 recommendation to allow women to fly combat missions.

Known for advocacy on women's and work-family issues, Schroeder helped pass the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which barred employers from dismissing women because they were pregnant and from denying them maternity benefits.

From 1979 until 1995, she co-chaired the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and was a founding member of the original Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, established in 1983.

Schroeder was a key advocate of the Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act of 1990, and a driving force behind the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provided women and men job protection for the care of a newborn, sick child or parent. She was the primary sponsor of the National Child Protection Act of 1993, which established national criminal background checks for child-care providers, and played a pivotal role in the passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

Although she pushed for a seat at the table for women, she never fully achieved one herself. At the outset of her 24-year term on the Armed Services, Schroeder was forced to physically share one seat with the committee's first Black member, Ron Dellums (D-CA). Committee Chair F. Edward Hébert, a hardline conservative Louisiana Democrat justified the directive, saying, “The two of you are only worth half the normal member.”

She was a foil for many Republican leaders, including Speaker Newt Gingrich, who earned an official House reprimand following ethics violations filed by Schroeder and others in 1998.

She coined the phrase "Teflon President" to describe Ronald Reagan for his ability to avoid blame for major policy decisions, and of Vice President Dan Quayle, said, “He thinks that Roe versus Wade are two ways to cross the Potomac.”

In 1995, in response to homophobic and derogatory comments made by Congressman Duke Cunningham (R-CA) during a floor debate, Schroeder rose to say, "Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Chairman -- do we have to call the Gentleman a gentleman if he's not one?"

Schroeder briefly explored a presidential bid in 1987 but her tearful press conference announcing that she would not run famously drew criticism from across the political spectrum, viewed as showing the weakness of women. Saying that it exposed a double standard for men and women in politics, she subsequently kept a "crying file" of male colleagues who "have been tearing up all along," but said it got so big that she threw it out.
In 1989, she wrote Champion of the Great American Family: A Personal and Political Book, and in 1998, following her departure from Congress, released 24 Years of Housework...and the Place is Still a Mess. My Life in Politics. The book chronicles her personal life and public career, and how she rose to the challenge of infiltrating the "guy gulag" of Congress.

“Pat Schroeder blazed the trail. Every woman in this house is walking in her footsteps.”- Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY)

Schroeder was named president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers in 1997 and served in that post for 11 years before retiring with her husband to Celebration, Florida. She passed away from complications of a stroke at age 82.

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Sources: Washington Post, New York Times, Politicos, USA Today, NPR, CNN, US Congress

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