Remembering Pat Schroeder: She Wrote the Book on Women in Politics

Colorado Women's Hall of Fame
I never knew a Denver without Pat Schroeder, who passed away March 13 at the age of 82. First elected to Congress in 1972, she revolutionized the role of women in politics in this country. We interviewed her many, many times; here's a piece I wrote in 1998, right before the release of her book 24 Years of Housework and the Place is Still a Mess: My Life in Politics, shortly after she left office.

First, about that bunny-suit business.

Twenty Easters ago, Pat Schroeder was touring China with fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee—with a bunny suit in her bag, packed at the behest of Jimmy Carter's ambassador, who was hosting an Easter egg hunt. Schroeder arrived in full rabbit regalia, the kids mobbed her, and a week later, she was mobbed again, this time by reporters who wanted to know why the congresswoman had hopped all over China dressed as a rabbit.

The bunny suit was donated to the Denver Children's Museum.

As to why Schroeder happened to own a bunny suit—well, you'll just have to read the book.

"I tried to set the record straight, but no one in the press would have it," Schroeder writes in 24 Years of House Work...and the Place Is Still a Mess. "Finally I gave up. I issued a statement that Congress would be a better place if more members wore rabbit suits instead of power suits."

And kept their zippers shut.

Although 24 Years, a breezy account of Schroeder's political life, hits stores later this month, that's not why the twelve-term congresswoman has books on the brain.

Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr recently served two Washington, D.C., bookstores with subpoenas demanding receipts for books bought by Monica Lewinsky. And that drives Schroeder nuts. "We're not going to have any privacy," she says. "What she reads isn't what she is."

What Schroeder writes isn't the whole story, either. But it's a quick refresher course in how far Congress had come before it got tangled in the current mess.

Last Thursday, Schroeder attended a memorial for Bella Abzug, one of the few women in Congress when Schroeder was elected in 1972. At the service, as in the House 26 years ago, Schroeder's reception was somewhat frosty; apparently people had seen advance copies of the book. "She never hesitated to roll over people," Schroeder writes of Abzug. "She didn't give a rat's ass who she offended for a righteous cause." The same could be said of Schroeder, of course. More telling was Schroeder's first encounter with Abzug. "Rearing a family while being in Congress was unheard of," Schroeder writes. "I'd never met Bella Abzug, the Democratic congresswoman from New York and America's premier feminist, so our first contact after my election was rather surprising. 'I hear you have little kids,' she said. 'You won't be able to do this job.'"

Abzug wasn't the first person to tell Schroeder that. Even members of the National Women's Political Caucus, which Schroeder helped to found, suggested she run for something like the school board rather than Congress. But Schroeder, whose First Congressional District candidacy was as startling to her as it was to everyone else, decided to take a "Dona Quixote" run for it and beat Arch Decker in the primary. (Decker later switched parties and challenged Schroeder as a Republican in 1978.)

Back then the seat was no Democratic sinecure, however. In fact, it was occupied by a Republican, Mike McKevitt, who, as Denver's district attorney in 1970, had shut down the movie I Am Curious Yellow and closed restaurants that served "hippies." But the government took Schroeder's candidacy seriously enough to have an FBI operative break into her house. Years later she learned her husband's barber was a paid FBI informer.

Schroeder won. That was the easy part, but she didn't know it. Then she entered Congress, a "guy gulag." There were no female pages. Congressmen sunbathed nude. It was only because Wilbur Mills (who would soon be caught frolicking in the Tidal Basin with stripper Fanne Foxe) wanted to appease his wife, a Schroeder fan, that she got a seat on the prestigious Armed Services Committee. Half a seat, it turned out: Chairman F. Edward Hebert was so peeved by the appointment of Schroeder and California's Ron Dellums —"a girl and a black," each worth only half of one "regular" member, Hebert said—that he made them share a chair. "Ron and I had two choices: to go ballistic or to hang in," Schroeder writes. "We decided to hang. So we sat 'cheek to cheek' on one chair, trying to retain some dignity."

The book swings past other highlights—and lowlights—of Schroeder's career. Tailhook. Introducing the term "Teflon" to describe the presidency of Ronald Reagan—who never met with the Congressional Women's Caucus (although he sent Nancy to one lunch). And her response early on when someone asked how she could be both a congresswoman and a mother: "I have a brain and a uterus, and they both work."

Schroeder has always been quick with a quip—which is one of the reasons why some people don't like her. Then there are other reasons, and other people. People like the Christian Coalition member who called her "a witch, a snake and a whore." Or Oliver North, who named her one of the country's 25 most dangerous people. "I would have done so much better politically," Schroeder writes, "if I had embraced the Second Amendment and forgotten about the First."

But Schroeder did well enough. In 1987, after fellow Coloradan Gary Hart dropped his second presidential bid—"I felt we'd all been let down by him," writes Schroeder, who chaired his campaign—she explored her own candidacy. A Time poll ranked her third: "Very exciting," Schroeder writes, "but third doesn't cut it." So in September 1987, Schroeder scheduled a speech in downtown Denver. When she started explaining why she wouldn't run, the crowd groaned. "My heart sank, and I began to cry," she writes. "I had underestimated how much I wanted to pursue the presidency. I went on with my speech, but it was my tears, not my words, that got the headlines."

Schroeder made headlines again two years ago, when she decided twelve terms were enough. She got out while the getting was good. "I would be in a straitjacket if I were there," she says of today's Congress.

Schroeder is now president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, which is why she's got books on the brain. Copyright issues. Intellectual-property issues. And legal issues—such as those raised by Lewinsky's reading lists.

"What are they going to do next?" asks Schroeder. "Go to Victoria's Secret to see if she wore underwear?"

Although Starr hasn't revealed what he's looking for, presumably he's not out to prove that Lewinsky has very pedestrian tastes (the treacly The Notebook is reportedly among her choices), or even an oral fixation (Nicholas Baker's Vox, nominally about phone sex but really about the power of an author's hip reputation). Last week a judge declined to quash the subpoenas, but also ruled that Starr can't see those records without first proving a "compelling need."

That's a win for Schroeder's group. For now.

Political pundits keep wondering where the "feminists" are on the Clinton scandals—but Schroeder's experience at the Abzug service shows exactly where. They're all over the map, just like everyone else. They don't speak with one voice. In fact, Schroeder doesn't speak much about this at all, despite hundreds of entreaties from reporters. When Schroeder last week tossed off one of those throwaway quips about whether Clinton's aides should have asked him if he was a sex addict, the media reported it "totally distorted and out of context," she says.

So today, when reporters and talk-show hosts call, she doesn't always answer. But then, she no longer has to answer to them, to us. Remember?

Still, after the Lewinsky saga went public in January, Schroeder added a hasty postscript: "Reporters, TV producers and friends from all over the country were asking the same question: 'What do you think?' The truth is, I didn't know what to think...And then I realized: I don't have the answer right now."

Pure Schroeder, for once without a Pat answer.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

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