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This Week in Freudenfreude: Pat Schroeder, 1940-2023

This week saw the death of 12-term congresswoman Pat Schroeder, a Democrat from Colorado. The 1980s' answer to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she's another person who should probably be much more famous than they actually are.

Schroeder was born in Oregon, as Patricia Nell Scott, to parents who believed in equality of the sexes. So, not only was she encouraged in her studies, she also became one of the youngest licensed pilots in the country at that time, at the age of 15. She attended the University of Minnesota and Harvard Law, and then settled in Colorado after marrying a Harvard classmate, Jim Schroeder. In 1970, after Jim ran for public office and lost, a friend jokingly suggested that Pat should run. This was apparently quite hilarious since Pat was not only a woman, but had two young children. Pat took the implicit insult as a challenge and in 1972, threw her hat in the ring for the seat occupied by too-conservative-for-the-district Mike McKevitt (R).

Schroeder ran that year on an anti-Vietnam War platform, and won fairly handily, despite a national Nixonian landslide. It helped that McKevitt did not take a female opponent seriously, and so did not bother to do certain basic things like, you know, campaign. Schroeder did not know it at the time, but because of her gender and her liberal politics, she was being surveilled by the FBI while on the campaign trail. When she later acquired the sizable dossier that the G-Men had put together, she learned that the feds' primary informant was... her husband's barber. Undoubtedly, he was able to cut right to the heart of the matter.

When Schroeder arrived in Washington the next January, she found a House with only a dozen female members, many of them widows who took over their husband's seats. Taking a look around, Schroeder famously described the lower chamber as "an overaged frat house." Her sardonic wit, and talent for turning a phrase, would serve the Representative well throughout her career. Schroeder managed to wangle a seat on the House Armed Services Committee, becoming the first woman to serve on that body. Although, at the beginning, it was only half a seat. The chair of the Committee at the time, F. Edward Hébert, a conservative Democrat from Louisiana, was ordered to diversify the Committee, and so agreed to accept Schroeder and Ron Dellums (D), who was Black. However, Hébert decided that the two new members would share a single seat on the Committee, meaning only one of them could be in attendance at any given time. "The two of you are only worth half the normal member," he bluntly told Schroeder and Dellums. He also refused to allow Schroder to represent the Committee at conferences, telling her "I wouldn't send you to represent this committee at a dogfight." All we can say to behavior like that is F- Edward Hébert. His retrograde views would cost him his committee chairmanship at the next Congress.

Schroeder's signature issue was women's and family issues, which makes sense because she was living it. Early in her tenure, she would often bring her infant children to work, and would occasionally have to change diapers on the floor of the House. Literally. We presume that the diapered children were not subjected to the rule about wearing coat and tie on the floor. When critics wondered how Schroeder could be both a mother and a member of Congress at the same time, and do both jobs properly, she would reply: "Well, I have a brain, I have a uterus and they both work." She also observed: "Nobody ever says to men, 'How can you be a Congressman and a father?'" Schroeder ultimately helped to establish the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families and to secure passage of the Military Family Act of 1985, Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and Violence Against Women Act of 1994, among other important pieces of legislation. She also wrote Champion of the Great American Family: A Personal and Political Book. In it, she explained that "I was and am, like many women, both pro-life and pro-choice."

Schroeder began her political career as something of a moderate, embracing generally liberal views on social issues and generally conservative views on fiscal issues. Over time, however, she went full lefty. "The genius of the Republicans," she remarked, "has been how they figured out how to so polarize the middle class that we vote against our own best interests." She was an outspoken opponent of the two Republican presidents who dominated her House tenure. It was she, in fact, who gave Ronald Reagan the nickname "Teflon Ron," while she voted against George H.W. Bush more often than any other member of the House. Of Bush's VP, she said: "Dan Quayle thinks Roe v. Wade is two ways to cross the Potomac."

Consistent with her social liberalism, Schroder was also an outspoken opponent of racism and other forms of bigotry. On one occasion, the somewhat-less-than-enlightened Duke Cunningham, a Republican from California, delivered remarks on the floor of the House that were overtly homophobic. One of the members, a fellow from Vermont by the name of Sanders, rose to object, and Cunningham shouted: "sit down, you socialist." Schroder then rose to ask a point of order of the presiding officer: "Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Chairman—do we have to call the Gentleman a gentleman if he's not one?" On another occasion, during a discussion of legislation that she found discriminatory against non-white Americans, Schroder asked: "The Pledge of Allegiance says '...with liberty and justice for all.' What part of 'all' don't you understand?"

By the end of her tenure, Schroeder was fed up with Republicans in general, and with then-speaker Newt Gingrich in particular. On one occasion in 1994, Gingrich & Co. gathered on the steps of the Capitol for a photo-op commemorating their return to the majority. Schroeder and her aides climbed up to the Capitol dome and hung a red banner that said "Sold" so that it would appear in the background of the picture. Still, such stunts were only temporary respites, and she decided to leave the House during Gingrich's speakership. On leaving, she said she was just plain tuckered out after "spending 24 years in a federal institution."

After her career in office, Schroeder kept busy. She was a professor at Princeton, and she produced books as both an author and publisher. She also continued to engage in community service, and was active in the League of Women Voters, the Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, and Common Cause. There is not freudenfreude in her death, of course, but there is in a life well lived. Rest in peace, Representative Schroder, and to everyone else, have a good weekend. (Z)

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