Pat Schroeder, first woman on House Armed Services, dies at 82
During 24 years in the House, Schroeder fought for women's rights, both personal and legislative
Pat Schroeder, the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee and a founding member of the first congressional women’s caucus, died this week at age 82.
Schroeder, who entered Congress in 1973, was the first woman elected to represent Colorado and one of 14 in the House at the time. She served for 24 years before retiring.
She had since left the Denver area she represented while in Congress and had been residing in Celebration, Fla. Schroeder died Monday night at a hospital there after recently suffering a stroke, her former press secretary, Andrea Camp, told The Associated Press.
Schroeder, whose full maiden name was Patricia Nell Scott, is survived by her husband, James W. Schroeder, whom she married in 1962, and their two children, Scott and Jamie, and four grandchildren, according to the AP.
Schroeder was born in Portland, Ore., on July 30, 1940, and grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, where she graduated high school. Schroeder went to the University of Minnesota for college because it had aircraft for its ROTC program; she got her pilot’s license when she was 15.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1964, Schroeder and her husband, who she met at Harvard, decided to settle in Denver and became active in community groups, including the Young Democrats. She worked as a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board and taught college courses before running for Congress.
James Schroeder ran for office first — narrowly losing a 1970 election for a state house seat — but he decided he didn’t like campaigning. However, he served on a committee of Democrats looking for a candidate to run for Congress in 1972 against Republican incumbent James Douglas McKevitt.
“He comes home one night and says, ‘Guess whose name came up?’” Schroeder recalled in an oral history interview with the House Historian’s Office in 2015. “I said, ‘I don’t know?’ He said, ‘Yours.’ I said, ‘Mine? I haven’t run for a bus; what are you talking about?’”
Schroeder said her husband had told her she’d never win — they didn’t think any Democrat could, given the strong conservative tilt of the Colorado delegation at the time — and the Democratic Party declined to give her financial support even after she won the primary because of the long odds.
“The biggest shock of 1972 was election night, when I won,” Schroeder said in the House Historian interview. “And my favorite visual that night was my poor husband, at 2 in the morning, saying, ‘I’m going down to the election commission because I really can’t believe this is right. What have we done to ourselves?’”
'A problem from day one'
Schroeder learned quickly during the campaign that, as a woman, she would struggle to be taken seriously. It didn’t help that she was only 31 when she first ran for office while raising 2- and 6-year-old children.
“It was very frustrating, when I announced for Congress, the newspaper said, ‘Denver housewife runs for Congress.’ I mean they didn’t even put my name in,” Schroeder told the House Historian. “And I kept thinking, ‘Well, yeah, I’m a housewife, but I’m also a Harvard lawyer. I also work at a university. I’m a hiring officer.’ So it was really a problem from day one, from that standpoint.”
The gender bias continued as soon as she arrived to Congress. The speaker at the time, Carl Albert, tried to swear in her husband instead of her.
“He kept saying to my husband, ‘Raise your hand,’ and Jim kept saying, ‘It’s her.’ And he’d look at me and he’d say, 'No, raise your hand, I’ve got to swear you in.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, it’s her,’” Schroeder told the House Historian. “And we would go to all of these events and they would come and say to me, ‘You’re standing in the wrong place, the member is supposed to be in front.’ And he’d say, ‘It’s her.’ I think he got so tired of saying, ‘It’s her.’”
The next big struggle was committee assignments. Schroeder wanted a seat on Armed Services, and the panel’s chairman at the time, Felix Edward Hébert, did not want her there. But the Ways and Means Committee doled out committee assignments in that era, and the chairman of that panel, Wilbur Mills, granted Schroeder’s request for Armed Services, overruling Hébert’s veto.
Schroeder didn’t learn until later that Mills’ wife, who was friends with a mutual friend of hers, had advocated for her. Mills had an affair at the time with Fanne Foxe, a stripper known as “the Argentine Firecracker”; their relationship later became public during a scandal that involved a drunken dive into Washington’s Tidal Basin.
“I really thought it was my qualifications and my ability to make my case,” Schroeder told the House Historian. “It wasn’t that at all. It was called spouse guilt — guilt about the Argentine Firecracker.”
Hébert, upset that Mills overruled him, made Schroeder and the panel’s only Black member, Ronald V. Dellums, share a seat on the dais because he considered them to be worth less than the committee’s white male members.
“We decided that we’d walk in with great dignity, and we share a chair. So we sat there, cheek-to-cheek,” Schroeder told the House Historian. “Later on, after several meetings, one of the staff was very nice and kind of put a folding chair out there.”
In 1977, Schroeder was part of a group of female lawmakers who founded the bipartisan Congresswomen’s Caucus (now the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues). She said Margaret M. Heckler suggested forming a caucus during a dinner Heckler hosted for her female colleagues.
“And then when I took it over, we decided we would let men in who had good voting records, and we could then support bills if we had a majority vote of the caucus,” Schroeder told the House Historian.
The caucus championed women’s issues, pushing for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and legislation on women’s health, among other topics. For years, Schroeder introduced legislation to provide employees with paid time off work to have children or care for an ill family member, before the Family and Medical Leave Act was eventually signed into law in 1993.
“It took nine years to get the bill signed. The bill that I introduced was very different than what we finally got passed, because we obviously had to water it down a lot and it took a lot to make it through,” she told the House Historian. “We had to put in there that they were going to study it for two years to make sure that businesses didn’t crumble all over America like we were told they would. They didn’t. We had to take out the paid part, which breaks my heart. We still haven’t gotten the paid part.”
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited Schroeder’s championing of paid leave as an example of her “remarkable legislative legacy.”
“It was my great personal privilege to serve with Congresswoman Schroeder, whom many of us consider one of the bravest women to ever serve in the halls of Congress,” the California Democrat and first female speaker said in a statement. “Her courage and persistence leave behind an indelible legacy of progress and have inspired countless women in public service to follow in her footsteps.”