A headline last week posed this question, “Why is the media so amazed Tammy Duckworth can be both a senator and pregnant?” and it reminded me of another politician who made headlines for her dual roles.
32 year-old Pat Schroeder was sworn in to Congress on a windy, cold, January day in 1973 with two young children, ages six and two, clinging to her skirts and apple juice dribbling down the front of her coat. An older male colleague sniped at her situation, asking how she intended to be a mother and a member of Congress at the same time. She famously replied, “I have a brain and a uterus. I use both.”
If the words feminist and humorist rarely end up in the same sentence together, it’s simply because we haven’t read enough about and by Colorado Congresswoman Schroeder. Pat’s not just a Dame Who Dared to shake things up, she did so with pithy quips and a great sense of humor.
The first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, she once told Pentagon officials that if they were women they’d always be pregnant, because they never said no. She claimed the Reagan administration thought arms control was a kind of deodorant. And yes, it was she who first coined the term “The Teflon President” to describe Ronald Reagan. She thought of it as she was cooking eggs for breakfast for her family, and if I thought I could come up with lines that memorable, I might start cooking breakfast for my own family.
Pat Schroeder walked onto the national stage at a time when people still did expect women to stay home and cook. There were only 14 other women in the House when she entered, and zero women in the Senate, an abysmal stat that was reflected in the 1970’s era poster, “A woman’s place is in the House, and the Senate.”
Women, and especially mom-women, just didn’t run for national office 45 years ago—which may be why the FBI monitored Pat Schroeder and her staff during her first campaign, even hiring someone to break into her house. Because, you know, a woman running for Congress was suspect. Later rebuked for “running as a woman”, she shrugged, “do I have a choice?”
Pat persisted and became a founding member of the Women’s Congressional Caucus, and a co-chair for ten years (her husband James co-founded his own Capitol Hill Group, “The Dennis Thatcher Club”, for the spouses of female politicians). The Caucus was a force behind legislation such as the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act because yes, you could be fired for being pregnant in this country. And it was their persistence—years before #MeToo—that forced the Senate Judiciary Committee to allow Anita Hill to testify. Because, yup, they were going to appoint him to the highest court in the land without allowing his accuser to testify.
There is a famous photo of Schroeder and other Reps from the Caucus marching up the steps of the Capitol to confront the Committee. As Schroeder recalls, Majority Leader Mitchell said, “we can’t let strangers in here.” They later learned Joe Biden had cut a deal in the men’s gym to keep the hearings moving along. It all sounds very 19th century, but it was actually the end of the 20th, and Schroeder’s one of the women who hauled us into the 21st with her tenacity and laser focus on women’s issues.
She briefly ran for President in 1987, after Gary Hart crashed and burned. When she withdrew from the campaign, she did so in tears and her emotional reaction was parodied on SNL. Schroeder herself simply said she’d make a great spokesperson for Kleenex.
Schroeder retired from Congress in 1997, but she didn’t retire her humor. A year later she published her memoir, “24 Years of Housework and the Place is Still a Mess.”