Pat Schroeder remembered as Colorado trailblazer for women’s equality

In her 24 years in Congress, former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder tossed barbs and quips, riling those who stood in her way because she was a woman while at the same time inspiring those who saw her as a force of nature when it came to promoting women’s equality.

Many of the Coloradan’s sayings are legendary. She was the one who nicknamed President Ronald Reagan the “Teflon President” because criticism never seemed to damage his reputation.

But Schroeder’s most notorious quote came in response to someone asking how she could possibly be a congresswoman and a parent to two small children: “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.”

“She was very proud of that line,” U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, who won Schroeder’s seat after she retired from Congress in 1997, said Tuesday morning when remembering her mentor.

Schroeder, who represented Colorado’s First Congressional District from 1973 to 1997 and was the first woman elected to Congress in the state, died Monday night from complications of a stroke that she suffered on Friday, said her daughter Jamie Cornish.

The 82-year-old lived in Florida with her husband Jim Schroeder. She also is survived by her son Scott Schroeder and four grandchildren.

“Honestly, every day was like a holiday with her,” Cornish said Tuesday as she described the St. Patrick’s Day and Easter decorations in her parents’ Florida home. “She made everything special.”

While friends and colleagues paid tribute by quoting Schroeder’s witty one-liners, she backed her sharp words with action that advanced women’s equality within the halls of Congress and across the United States.

“I think of her with a smile. Why is that? It’s because she was her own person,” former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer said. “She knew who she was. And she went through the world driving what she valued and not letting people herd her into a corner and stereotyping her. She was breaking new ground and we needed it broken.”

Schroeder helped pass the Family Medical Leave Act — a federal law that allows people to take time away from work to care for children or ailing family members. She also pushed the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act that barred companies from firing women when they had children. And as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, she was behind a movement to allow women into more military jobs, including flying in combat missions.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday lauded Schroeder’s influence on the American woman’s way of life, saying she reshaped the country for the better. The two worked together to pass the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which expanded tools to combat domestic violence.

“On issue after issue, Pat stood up for basic fairness, sensible policy and women’s equal humanity,” Biden said in a statement. “The result was a legislative record that changed millions of women’s lives — and men’s lives — for the better.”

“Full of energy and optimism and hope”

Patricia Schroeder was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, by parents who encouraged her independent spirit, her daughter said.

“She had a very adventurous spirit and felt like there was nothing she couldn’t do,” Cornish said.

She broke barriers throughout her life, receiving a pilot’s license at an early age and getting accepted into Harvard Law School when few women did.

It was there she met her husband, and the young couple moved to Denver in 1964 after he accepted a job at a law firm in the city.

Before running for Congress, Schroeder worked for the National Labor Relations Board, taught at Regis University, the University of Denver and Metropolitan State University of Denver, and served as an attorney for Planned Parenthood.

Jim Schroeder was the first in the family to dabble in politics, losing a 1970 bid for the Colorado House of Representatives by 42 votes. But he went on to be involved in Denver’s Democratic politics.

In 1972, the city’s Democrats were searching for a candidate who could unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Mike McKevitt, but the prevailing thought was he would be unbeatable. The writing on the wall was that Richard Nixon would beat Joseph McGovern in a landslide in the presidential race, and no one running on the Democratic ticket would have a chance.

“Nobody wanted to run because they thought it would be a disaster,” Jim Schroeder told The Denver Post on Tuesday.

So Democratic Party operatives thought it would be a good time to put forth a woman as a candidate, he said. A law partner approached him and said, “We’ve found a candidate — your wife.”

“I said, ‘Pat, you might as well run. Talk sense to the people and lose. At least it will be a good experience,’” Jim Schroeder said.

But Pat Schroeder’s intelligence, friendliness and attractiveness inspired voters, her husband said. He remembered walking down 17th Street and seeing Teamsters riding in a truck shouting, “Nixon and Schroeder!”

That campaign would inspire multiple women in Denver to get involved in politics and public affairs.

Maria Garcia Berry was a teenager working on the McGovern presidential campaign when she first heard of Schroeder. She remembered walking into a campaign event at Democrat Party headquarters and seeing everything draped in royal blue with posters of Schroeder’s slogan, “If she wins, we win.”

Berry was in awe.

“As a young 19-year-old, it was pretty amazing to me to watch this woman turn the tide and energize Denver,” Berry said.

Berry went on to found CRL Associates, a Denver-based lobbying firm that focuses on local affairs. She didn’t always share the same views as Schroeder, but still remembers the energy surrounding Schroeder’s first campaign as an ideal example of what politics should be about.

“She was fearless and just full of energy and optimism and hope,” Berry said. “I don’t think there’s been a campaign to this day that has made that impression on me.

“It was truly what I thought politics was about — to inspire.”

A run for the White House

In 1987, Schroeder dipped her toes into national politics when she considered a run for president after a fellow Coloradan, former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, withdrew from the race.

In a 2016 interview with Colorado Public Radio, Schroeder talked about her bid for the White House. Polls showed people were not willing to vote for a woman for president, and when traveling the country she realized many states had not yet elected a woman to any office.

“They certainly weren’t going to consider a woman for president,” she said.

Schroeder held a news conference in Denver’s Civic Center to announce the end of her campaign. During the speech, Schroeder cried and rested her head on her husband’s shoulder.

That launched a barrage of criticism from men and women, who said she showed that women were too weak to be president and that she had caused a setback to feminism.

But Kelli Fritts, a Denver native who was campaigning for Schroeder in Louisiana, didn’t see the tears as a flaw.

“I saw that as a sign of strength. She cared. She wanted to do it, but she recognized where America was at the time,” Fritts said. “Let’s face it. We’re still not there. We still haven’t had a woman president.”

Fritts worked with Schroeder when she was elected president of the Colorado Young Democrats. Every Christmas, Schroeder would give everyone at the Denver Democrats’ holiday party an ornament. Fritts still hangs hers on the family tree.

“Again, she was such an inspiration to me and a lot of my friends,” Fritts said. “There just weren’t a lot of women in politics at the time. She was just so savvy and funny and on point.”

“She was balancing a lot”

Life in Congress was not easy for Schroeder.

Shortly after she was elected, a female colleague visited her to warn that it would be impossible to be a mother to a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old and to serve in Congress.

But she made it work.

Cornish recalled playing with clay and pipe cleaners during Armed Services Committee hearings.

“Obviously she was very, very busy flying back and forth, but she prioritized every spare minute for us,” Scott Schroeder said. “We knew she was balancing a lot.”

Schroeder, who opposed the Vietnam War, was the first woman appointed to the powerful House Armed Services Committee. She was appointed at the same time the first Black man was chosen for the committee. The chairman, former Louisiana Rep. F. Edward Hébert, was so peeved that a woman and a Black man had been put on the committee that he only reserved one seat for them to share, DeGette said.

“They had to seat sit in one seat, and they showed up, and they did it with dignity and pride and they never let that chairman or anyone else get the better of them,” DeGette said.

Hébert, whose name was pronounced “a bear,” refused to acknowledge Schroeder when she tried to offer an amendment to a bill during a committee hearing, said former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado. She kept raising her hand until Hébert was forced to call on her.

“Pat said with some glee, ‘I’ve got Hébert by the tail.’ That was in her first month in the Congress,” said Wirth, who also served in the House with Schroeder.

She then made buttons with that slogan on them and handed them out to people.

“He was the classic recalcitrant southern chairman,” Wirth said. “And she was the rambunctious, liberal, reformist Democrat.”

Wirth recalled one of Schroeder’s favorite sayings: “A woman’s place is in the House… of Representatives.” He also said she wore buttons with “57%” printed on them to remind people of the pay gap between men and women.

“She’d take on anybody and take them on with wit and humor,” Wirth said.

“Keep fighting”

DeGette said that Schroeder’s wit and dignity are the lessons she carries with her in Congress.

When DeGette ran to replace Schroeder in 1997, Schroeder was late to endorse her. But that’s because Schroeder wanted DeGette to build a name for herself. When the endorsement finally came, the two held a news conference at which a reporter commented that DeGette had “big shoes to fill.”

In response, Shroeder took off a shoe and slid it to DeGette.

“She gave it to me and said, ‘Put it on.’ Luckily it fit,” DeGette said. “And I said, ‘You know, I feel like Cinderella.’”

DeGette last heard from Schroeder when she received a Valentine’s Day card that congratulated DeGette on becoming a grandmother and an invitation to visit Schroeder in Florida.

Last year, the two talked about their determination to protect women’s reproductive rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which had established a Constitutional right to abortions.

“She never gave up the fight,” DeGette said. “Every so often, she would shoot me an email and say, ‘This is outrageous. Keep fighting.’”

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