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The ‘Girl’ Who Shattered Barriers

I was 32 years old when I was elected in 1972, and I had a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. That was the year of the Nixon landslide. Everyone was shocked that I won — including me. Before the election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wouldn’t even meet with me. They were sure I was worse than a lost cause.

When I arrived, Congress had seen women Members before, but a young one with children was really new. Even then-Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) said she didn’t know how I could do the job. Consequently, I think most people thought I was a fluke. In fact, many Members came right out and said to me, “You’re a fluke, aren’t you?” So, I didn’t have a lot of gravitas, shall we say.

During my swearing-in, Speaker Albert asked my husband, Jim, to raise his hand, and he had to say, “No, she’s the Member.” He had to say that a lot at the welcoming receptions and other events.

When both I and the Congress got over the novelty of my being there, I was shocked by how women were treated. I was told that women were not allowed on the porch off the Speaker’s Reception Room. There were no young women as pages then, and no women working for the Doorkeeper, the police and almost every other patronage position.

I even brought the children in one weekend to swim in the pool at the House gym, only to find out that I couldn’t take them in. Teno Roncalio, the Congressman from Wyoming then, was kind enough to invite my children to join him and his children, since he could get into the pool.

One weekend, I almost got arrested trying to park in Congressional parking at the airport. The police officer said he was sick of staffers thinking this perk extended to them!

The most fun were the comments different Members made to me. I remember one taking me to coffee and saying he couldn’t figure out why I came, because politics is about “Chivas Regal, beautiful women, Lear jets and thousand-dollar bills” — and I didn’t seem interested in any of those. And he was serious.

The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Edward Hebert (D-La.), made it very clear he did not want any “girls or blacks” on his committee. When Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) and I were put on the committee over his veto, he raged. He was so furious, he allowed the two of us only one chair at the dais, saying it took both of us to equal one of his other members.

Obviously, over time, Members got to know me and decided that I wasn’t a fluke. More women came, and things got better. Yet, I still remember that when the class of 1992 was sworn in, a Member came over and said, “I hope you’re happy — this place now looks like a shopping mall with all the women.” I asked him where he shopped that more than 90 percent of the shoppers are male!

Fundraising has become easier, since there is clearly a greater acceptance by the public and Members of women as politicians. Yet, women are still far from a critical mass in the Congress, and every scholar says that a minority group must have a critical mass before they can fully impact an institution. So I say we go for critical mass.

Former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) served in the House from 1973 to 1997 and is currently the president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Publishers.

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