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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Patricia Schroeder, feminist trailblazer in Congress, dies at 82

Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) in New York on April 27, 1999. Schroeder, a former leading feminist legislator who helped redefine the role of women in American politics and used her wit to combat sexism in Congress, died on Monday, March 13, 2023, in Celebration, Fla.

By Katharine Q. Seelye

Patricia Schroeder, a former leading feminist legislator who helped redefine the role of women in U.S. politics and used her wit to combat sexism in Congress, died Monday in Celebration, Florida. She was 82.

Her death, in a hospital, was attributed to complications of a stroke, said her daughter, Jamie Cornish.

Schroeder, who was a pilot and a Harvard-trained lawyer, had a long and distinguished career in the House of Representatives. She was a driving force behind the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which guaranteed women and men up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member.

She helped pass the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which barred employers from dismissing women because they were pregnant and from denying them maternity benefits. And she championed laws that helped reform spousal pensions, opened military jobs to women and forced federally funded medical researchers to include women in their studies.

Elected in 1972 as an opponent of the Vietnam War, Schroeder served on the Armed Services Committee for all 24 years she was in Congress. From that perch, she called for arms control and reduced military spending.

She worked to improve benefits for military personnel and persuaded the committee to recommend that women be allowed to fly combat missions; Defense Secretary Les Aspin ordered it so in 1993, and by 1995, the first female fighter pilot was flying in combat. That only further outraged Schroeder’s critics on the right, like Lt. Col. Oliver North, who called her one of the nation’s 25 most dangerous politicians.

One of the most enduring public images of Schroeder is of her crying when she announced in 1987 that she would not run for president, as her supporters had hoped. At an outdoor event in Denver, she choked up with emotion, pressed a tissue to her eyes, and at one point leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder. The episode dismayed some feminists, who said her tears had reinforced stereotypes and set back the cause of women seeking office.

It was an ironic charge against a woman who had done so much to promote that cause. Schroeder was the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado and the first to serve on the Armed Services Committee. She had to fight blatant discrimination from the start, facing questions about how, as the mother of two young children, she could function as both a mother and a lawmaker.

“I have a brain and a uterus and I use both,” she responded.

When she arrived on Capitol Hill, she was one of just 14 women in the House, an institution she called a “guy gulag,” where she was sometimes dismissed as “Little Patsy,” even though she was relatively tall.

Schroeder was fully aware that women seemed to make many congressmen antsy. “It’s really funny if two women stand on the House floor,” she said. “There are usually at least two men who go by and say, ‘What is this, a coup?’ They’re almost afraid to see us in public together.”

In her book “24 Years of House Work … and the Place Is Still a Mess” (1998), she wrote of being engaged in battles on every front, “whether we were fighting for female pages (there were none) or a place where we could pee.”

The antagonism toward women was particularly pointed from Rep. F. Edward Hebert, a conservative Louisiana Democrat who was the powerful chairman of what had been the all-male Armed Services Committee. At their first committee meeting in 1973, he made Schroeder sit in the same chair with Rep. Ron Dellums, an African-American. As she recounted it in her book, she and Dellums had to sit “cheek to cheek” because the chairman “said that women and blacks were worth only half of one ‘regular’ member.”

It is not clear that he actually uttered those words — other accounts, including Dellums’, do not contain that quotation — but Schroeder was a sharp rhetorical speaker with a tart tongue and she was not afraid to use it.

She was the one who branded Ronald Reagan the “Teflon president,” against whom bad news, like the Iran-Contra scandal, did not stick. Of Vice President Dan Quayle, she said: “He thinks that Roe versus Wade are two ways to cross the Potomac.”

Her analysis of her opponents’ strength carried the sting of truth: “The genius of the Republicans has been how they figured out how to so polarize the middle class that we vote against our own best interests.” During her brief flirtation with running for president, she said the question she was trying to answer was this: “Is America man enough to back a woman?”

Schroeder had been co-chair of Gary Hart’s promising 1987 presidential campaign, until he quit after being exposed as an adulterer. His sudden absence prompted Schroeder to consider running herself.

Had she pursued the White House, she would have been the first woman from a major party to do so since Rep. Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, who sought the Democratic nomination in 1972.

After her death, President Joe Biden released a statement of condolence, saying in part: “On issue after issue, Pat stood up for basic fairness, sensible policy, and women’s equal humanity. The result was a legislative record that changed millions of women’s lives — and men’s lives — for the better.”

Patricia Nell Scott was born on July 30, 1940, in Portland, Oregon. Her father, Lee Combs Scott, was a pilot who owned an aviation insurance company. Her mother, Bernice, taught first grade. The family moved often, ending up in Des Moines, where Schroeder graduated from high school.

She earned her pilot’s license at 15 and attended the University of Minnesota, where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and majored in philosophy, history and political science.

From there she went to Harvard Law School, where she was one of 15 women in a class of more than 500. She married a classmate, James Schroeder, in 1962. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her husband, along with their son, Scott; Schroeder’s brother, Mike Scott; and four grandchildren.

After Schroeder graduated from Harvard Law in 1964, she and her family settled in Denver, where she worked for the National Labor Relations Board, volunteered as counsel for Planned Parenthood and taught at the University of Colorado and Regis College.

In 1972, when President Richard Nixon appeared to be headed for reelection in a landslide, the Democratic Party fielded only a conservative candidate for Congress in Schroeder’s Denver district. Other liberals, including her husband, encouraged her to challenge him in a primary. They did not think she could necessarily win but thought it was important that someone give voice to their views — anti-war, pro-environment and pro women’s rights.

She had almost no money and no backing, but her message and enthusiasm caught on. Gloria Steinem campaigned for her. And she won both the primary and the general election against a Republican incumbent, despite the Nixon landslide. Years later, when she requested her FBI file, Schroeder found out that the bureau had placed her under surveillance during that race, breaking into her home and even recruiting her husband’s barber as an informant.

She was reelected 11 more times with only token Republican opposition. After the Democrats lost the House in 1994 and she had served in the minority for two years, she decided to retire. She would be 56 and the longest-serving woman in the House, and her decision upset many Democrats.

“She was the coach, the leader, the strategist,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., told The Washington Post. “She was, by far, the greatest feminist of my time.”

Even some foes bore her grudging respect. Tony Blankley, press secretary to her nemesis, the Republican speaker Newt Gingrich, said: “I sense her legacy will be effectiveness in political rhetoric,” which he called “an honorable part of this business.”

She and her husband retired to Florida, specifically Celebration, a master-planned community built (and sold) by the Walt Disney Co. She remained an activist, continuing to advocate for the causes that had always animated her, like improving family life and caring for the planet, just as she had imagined doing in her book decades earlier.

“In my dotage, rocking on my porch,” she wrote, “I will probably be faxing or emailing or communicating by whatever 21st-century method I cannot even fathom about social wrongs that need to be righted.”

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