Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Patricia Schroeder, Congresswoman

Patricia Schroeder represented Colorado in the US House of Representatives from 1973 to 1997, where she championed the rights of women and families and drove through the Family and Medical Leave Act.

"Patriotism and courage are not exclusively male traits... Women were a major force against slavery, for expanded political rights, for good government, and for governmental involvement with the poor and dispossessed." ~ Patricia Schroeder

Patricia Schroeder was born into a military family in Portland, Oregon on July 30th, 1940. Her mother was a teacher and her father was an aviation insurance salesman, and they moved frequently between military towns for the span of her childhood.

Raised in Texas, Ohio, and Iowa, Patricia was an outgoing child who, upon arriving in a new town, would go out to the sidewalk in front of her house an line up her toys for the neighborhood kids to play with, in an effort to make new friends.

She exhibited an independent spirit from an early age. She learned to fly, attaining her private pilot's license when she was 15, and operating her own flying service as a means to put herself through college. For her undergraduate, Patricia attended the University of Minnesota, where she majored in philosophy, history, and political science, graduating in 1961.

The "Nightmare" of Harvard

Enjoying her life as a busy and self-driven student, Patricia didn't think much about gender until attending Harvard Law School, which she described as "a nightmare." She was one of 15 women in a class of over 500, and the dean of the school told the women outright that he did not want them there; that he had admitted 15 extra men to the college that year as he could not bear to think of these women taking any spot away from a man.

On the first day of the semester when Patricia went into the classroom and sat down, the men on either side stood up to move, announcing that they had never in their academic careers sat next to a woman, and they didn't plan on starting that day.

Patricia described the experience as follows:

"I had gone to undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, which was wonderful. I could rent airplanes through the ROTC program, I worked for an insurance agency in Minneapolis, I made so much money I was able to buy a convertible and go to school too, because I was adjusting losses, and flying around, and working in the student government, and doing all these things, and I got to Harvard, and I was like, someone just put a bell jar over my head. How do I breathe in this place? So I found it a very different environment.

"We had one professor who didn't want women. And so he would call Ladies' Days. And there were only like five women in our class, and he would put us up on stage, and anybody could ask us questions, and do anything they wanted. And I would just think, this is really discriminatory, this is really outrageous. But - he's also grading you, and he's your professor. So you kinda have to suck it up, smile, and do your thing. Because I figured well, I'm here, and I'm going to get out of here with a degree, one way or another."

Patricia graduated with her law degree in 1964, then moved to Denver and started a family with her husband James Schroeder, whom she had met at law school - Jim was a previous pilot as well, having flown with the military, and the two hit it off with that in common.

Congressional bid

In Denver Patricia worked for as a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board for two years then opened up her own private practice, taught law, and volunteered as council for the local Planned Parenthood.

In 1972 at the encouragement of her husband, Patricia ran for congressional office. The district was predominantly Democratic but conservative, and encompassed most of the city of Denver. The couple felt it was a long shot and were running without the support of the Democratic National Committee or the state Democratic Party.

When she announced, the headline said "Denver Housewife Announces for Congress."

Asked to explain the motivation behind her congressional bid, Schroeder replied, “Among other things, the need for honesty in government. It’s an issue that women can speak best to—and more should be given the chance.”

Then she added "Men run (for office) and no-one questions what they want. Women run and everyone says well, what do they want? And you say, human priorities. You know, that's all I want."

As Patricia put it, "No-one would have anything to do with me - except the local people in Denver, and that's all I needed." Her anti-war, woman's rights message appealed to the voters, and she became the first woman elected to Congress in Colorado. The average donation to her campaign had been $7.50.

A Politician and a Mother

When she went to Congress to get sworn in, she said "Everyone was trying to swear in Jim (her husband). They didn't realize I was the one getting sworn in."

From History, Art, and Archives of the US House of Representatives:
"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.” One male colleague remarked, “This is about Chivas Regal, thousand–dollar bills, Lear jets and beautiful women. Why are you here?”
At 32 years of age, Patricia was the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress - fellow Harvard Law School student Elizabeth Holtzman was that youngest, at 31. With a 6-year old and a 2-year old child, Patricia received much attention from the media for not only being a woman in Congress, but for being a mother as well.

Not that Patricia tried to hide that fact from anyone. She was known for carrying diapers in her bag along with her legal briefs, and keeping crayons in her desk. She faced frequent criticism for her choices. “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.”

She went on, "I often felt like I was triggering some gut reaction in men, and I didn't know what it was. I would get on planes, or something, and there would be someone with a finger in my face, saying 'what are you up to now? Why don't you talk to your husband?"

Her most famous quote was a snappy retort to a question she frequently fielded, that of how she managed to be both a mother and a member of Congress. "I have a brain, I have a uterus, and they both  work."

Armed Services Committee

Aware that the House Armed Services Committee (like most) was all-male, Patricia sought and earned a seat on the Committee because "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.”

Patricia set out to identify and curb defense appropriations that at that time made up 40% of the national budget, and represented a minority viewpoint in this regard. Infuriated to have a 32-year old mother on his committee, Chairman F. Edward Hebert slighted Patricia as frequently as possible, including not allowing an extra chair at the table when the group met for the first time for an organizational meeting.

Patricia was instead forced to share a chair with another member of the Committee, Ron Dellums, a black Democrat from California, as Hebert declared that "women and blacks were worth only half of one regular Member."

In the face of such hostility Dellums and Patricia did what both had learned to do from experience - draw themselves up, smile, and act completely unruffled. As Dellums told it, they shared the chair like it was "the most normal thing in the world," not showing that they were bothered. At the next meeting there was an extra chair at the table, and in 1975 Patricia and her Democratic colleagues ousted Herbert as Committee leader, as part of congressional reform efforts to reduce the power of long-standing committee members.

As a representative of the committee, Patricia was a driving force in the 1970s and 80s in pulling back on Cold War expenditures, and was a major advocate for Arms Control. In 1985 she crafted the Military Family Act to improve the benefits, health care, and living conditions for military personnel, and later spearheaded demands for military reform after two sexual harassment scandals revealed an abuse of female recruits.

Women's Rights and Reforms

Unsurprisingly, Patricia's area of specialty was women's rights and services for the family, where she played a critical role in getting major acts passed through Congress. As she put it, "I decided I had to take up women and family issues because no-one else did it."

In 1977, Patricia co-founded the Congressional Women's Caucus, which she co-chaired for ten years. In 1987 she helped pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, mandating that employers could not fire women employees because they were pregnant, or deny them disability or medical benefits."

One of the bills Patricia worked very hard on was the Family Medical Leave Bill, which proposed guaranteeing men and women 12 weeks of job-protected leave for a personal or family member health crisis or a new child.

While it was important to Patricia that the bill covered both men and women, she received opposition behind closed doors from male associates in Congress who refused to back the bill until she "took men out of it," because they feared "my wife will make me babysit" while she went to work.

Comments Patricia, "They just couldn't imagine having a wife working outside the home. It took nine years to get that damn thing through, and even then, it was watered down, but we did keep men in it." She paused, then added, "We really need to not condemn people for having a family."

Presidential Campaign

In 1987 Patricia chaired the presidential campaign of Senator Gary Hart before it came to light that he had engaged in marital infidelities, which enraged Patricia. For a brief time she sought the Democratic nomination for President, but in September 1987 she felt forced to issue a statement announcing her withdrawal, citing two reasons: first, that she had not yet "figured out" how to run a campaign that kept her in touch with the people she was serving and did not serve to isolate her from them in a way she felt was typical of political campaigns and damaging; and second, due to the circumstances of her announcing her bid, she had simply started too late in the race to contend.

Patricia felt that she might have had a chance at the 1988 Presidency if our voting system relied on one person, one vote, but the way our system is set up, with a primary voting process and a secondary voting process and involving delegates, she did not see how it was possible at that late stage to win the necessary number of delegates.

In her speech announcing her withdrawal from the race Patricia was overwhelmed at one point and cried, a sight that is not uncommon in politics and certainly not exclusive to women (as numerous men including Ronald Reagan have welled up while in office), but she was damned for it in the media, despite the fact that she regained control of her emotions quickly and completed the press conference, fielding questions with her usual candor.

March on the Senate

Another remarkable event that Patricia Schroeder lent her weight to was the 1991 March of the Senate. On October 8th, as the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee prepared to vote on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court without considering the sexual harassment charge leveled at him by Anita Hill, Patricia and six other women Democratic members of the House marched over to the Senate in a display of protest, demanding justice and that the vote be delayed until Anita was given a fair chance to speak.

Congresswomen march on the Senate
October 8th, 1991 
Senators from both parties had been previously dismissive of Anita's charges, but the House bowed to the women representatives and agreed to delay the vote.

As Patricia recalled, "Chairman Biden grudgingly put her on the witness list but not in prime time. He also rejected the other women who stepped forward as witnesses. It was painful to watch the Democratic Senators on the Judiciary committee — those cowardly lions — quiver and quake. They were pitiful, and no help at all."

Anita Hill did get a chance to speak and be heard, but despite the hearings, on October 15th by a vote of 52-48, the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas as the court's 106th justice.


Patricia retired from Congress in 1997, after serving 24 years. She taught at Princeton University for a short time following, and in 1997 was appointed President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers.

Reflecting on the work done by her generation of women, Patricia comments that they accomplished a lot, but "not everything." They fought for a woman's right to work, but after that she feels the issue became the woman with two full-time jobs, trying to juggle everything, with people encouraging her on, saying 'you got this. You're powerful," while the basic infrastructure to support that woman who was not in place.

Patricia sees that as the challenge of the next generation - continuing to build programs and support for working mothers and families so it doesn't feel so prohibitive to be working while raising a family.


Patricia has been inducted to the National Women's Hall of Fame, and was honored with a Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Mothers and Families in 2006 for her lifetime of contributions.


"Freedom isn't something you give to people as a wrapped up package. It's something each generation has to continue to monitor and work on all across the board."

"Never frown at you enemies. Smile - it scares the hell out of them."

"It's so important to have women in Congress, because people don't think about the family issues, and the work issues, and the quality of life issues for families, they just don't. We're talking about a very elite group. Now, almost all of them are multi-millionaires. That wasn't really true when I went, but... my last year, a young man came and sat down next to me and said 'Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?' and I said 'No, not at all.' And he said 'what do  you do with your salary?' And I said 'well, we have children in college,' and he said 'Oh, I didn't know you were one of those.' And he said 'I'm thinking of putting it into a flower fund, so I can buy flowers for people when it's their birthday, and for funerals.' And I said 'Oh!' So they are so out of touch with what's really going on. And we are seeing it more and more. What they do now is they get a flannel shirt, and they get a pickup, and everybody thinks oh, they are really like us, but they should follow them home. And they'll know differently."