Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Happy Birthday - Patricia Schroeder

Young women today look up to Wendy Davis, as well they should! In the 1970s and 80s, we had our own feminist icon in politics: Pat Schroeder.

She was the Congresswoman for Colorado for as long as I could remember. We could always rely on her to stand up for women and minorities and I'm certain whenever she was on TV our whole house went quiet.

Reading about her work prior to serving in Congress (for 24 years, starting in 1973 at the age of 32!), I learned how truly amazing her life has been.

Her father was an aviation insurance sales man, and her mother was a public school teacher. She'd been born in Portland, Oregon, but hers was a military family, and they moved between Texas, Ohio, and Iowa when she was younger.

Her determination to do something useful in life started early. Having already received her pilot's license, she put herself through college by operating a flying service, as well working as an insurance claims adjuster on the side. In 1961, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota, with a degrees in philosophy, history and political science.

She then pursued a law degree from Harvard, where she faced a level of sexism that would make MadMen look like a cake walk. One of her professors would call the few young women in his class to the front and force them to answer all kinds of questions from the male students. The dean made his dislike of women clear at the earliest possibility. He invited all 15 of the women in the law class to attend a luncheon where he informed that when he had been forced to admit them, the increased the number of male students by the same number, because he couldn't stand to think of these ladies taking their places.

Despite suffocating level of sexism, she persevered, and graduated in 1964, at which she and her husband (a law school classmate) moved to Denver. Because she'd been told that no law firm would hire a woman, she instead took a job working for the federal government as a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board. Two years later, she set up a private practice and began teaching law classes. It was also at this time she began volunteering as council for Planned Parenthood.

In 1972, she ran against the incumbent congressional representative for her district, and won. The media made her out to be a housewife who just one day decided to run for office. But that's probably just because at the time they just couldn't imagine a woman actually having that kind of ambition. When she went to the capital to be sworn in, people kept assuming she was "just the wife" and that her husband was there to serve. They figured it out pretty quickly, though she still had to endure sexist comments from her fellow 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?” Another asked how she could be a mother of two small children and a Member of Congress at the same time. She replied, “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.” Still another male colleague sneered, “I hope you aren’t going to be a skinny Bella Abzug!”
Source: History, Art & Archives
She didn't bother trying to hide her role as mother, and was known to carry diapers in her bag and keep crayons in her office.
“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 became the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, which was a rude awakening to the powers that be in Washington.
Infuriated that a young woman sat on his committee, Chairman F. Edward H├ębert of Louisiana, a Dixiecrat and 30–year veteran of Congress, made Schroeder share a chair with Ron Dellums, an African–American Democrat from California, during the organizational meeting for the committee. As Schroeder recalled, she and Dellums sat “cheek to cheek” because the chairman declared “that women and blacks were worth only half of one regular Member” and thus deserved only half a seat.
Source: History, Art & Archives
Schroeder and the other Democrats made sure to elect a different chairman when the time came.

In 1991, when Clarence Thomas was up for appointment to the Supreme Court, and Anita Hill (who also has a birthday today!) was trying to make her case, it was Congresswomen Patricia Schroeder, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Louise Slaughter and others who marched to the Senate and demanded they giver her a fair chance to speak.

"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."

What I recall the most about her time in office is her work for the Family and Medical Care Leave Act, which she'd started on years before it finally passed in 1993. True to her feminist ideals, she wanted to create programs that helped balance the requirements of work and caring for family members. Many of the laws we enjoy today are a direct result of her work then.

It is our job as modern feminists to step in where she and her generation left off.
"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."

Patricia Schroeder is in the National Women's Hall of Fame. She was honored with a Foremother Award by the National Research Center for Women and Families in 2006 for her lifetime of achievements.

So, on this, her 74th birthday, I want to say thank you. Thank you, Patricia Schroeder, for your years of service, and for being such a fantastic role model for my generation of feminists. I hope we, along with the current generation, can make you proud.

For more info:

Makers from PBS has an excellent series of clips from an interview with her: Congress's Millionaires 

Wikipedia: Patricia Schroeder

US House of Representative: History, Art & Archives Biography

National Women's History Museum: Patricia Schroeder

Politic's The Arena: Profile

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