Pat Schroeder mastered the use of humor in politics long before social media

Pat Schroeder should never have won her seat in Congress. As she reported in her 1998 book 24 years of housework… and the place is still a Mixed up — a title indicative of the irreverent public figure she made in Washington — she was nominated as a “kamikaze” anti-war candidate for Colorado’s 1stSt congressional district in 1972. In elementary school, she faced a well-funded senator; a cocky Republican District Attorney in the general election.

More specifically, she was just 31 years old with a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old.

“The consensus, even among some of my most liberal friends, was that I was trying to do too much too quickly,” Schroeder, who died this week at the age of 82, wrote in her book. The National Women’s Political Caucus, which she had previously helped found, encouraged her to run for city council or school board instead. After winning with 52 percent of the vote, Democratic New York Representative Bella Fang called Schroeder on the phone and warned, “I understand you have young children. You won’t be able to do this job.”

“So it wasn’t even just about being a woman,” Schroeder recalled in a 2015 interview with the historian’s house office. “It was a young woman with young children, and that really upset people.” Entering Congress seemed not only subversive to her at that stage of her life, it seemed absurd.

Schroeder would end up serving 12 terms in Congress, cementing himself not only as a trailblazer—she and Trigger were among just 14 women in the House when they were elected—but a symbol of what can happen when people, and women in particular, are in Congress full of life experience you take a seat at the table of power. Among her most famous legislative successes were the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which protected women from being fired for pregnancy (following a 1976 Supreme Court ruling denying such protections under the Gender Discrimination Act), and the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, which entitles most workers to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members or themselves. (The original bill Schroeder submitted called for 26 weeks with payment.)

What hard-fought success Schroeder got — “It took nine months to deliver each of my children and nine years to deliver FMLA,” she’d later say — came from “her humanity and her persistence and her humor,” says Ellen Bravo, the former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, one of many national groups that worked for the bill’s passage. Year after year, Schroeder leaned into the absurdity of Washington, deploying a brand of witty straight talk that drew attention to her causes, well before social media and viral memes.

“Not only was she able to withstand obnoxious attacks on her, but she was also able to direct devastating reactions at the people who were after her,” says Bravo. “She handled them in a way that ate through the facade of authority.”

Schroeder was the one who declared that Ronald Reagan had a “Teflon-coated presidency” (an idea reportedly came to her while frying eggs in a non-stick pan) and called George HW Bush and Dan Quayle members of the “lucky sperm club” because you could run for office with the family fortune.

And she met her own humiliations with humor and theatrics. When she won a seat on the House Armed Services Committee early in her term, the chairman, a Louisiana Democrat named F. Edward Hébert, was furious that she and Ron Dellums, a black Democrat from California, included on the committee against Hébert had been wishes. He only provided the two of them with a single chair, so Schroeder and Dellums squeezed in together — “cheek to cheek,” she would later write — and sat like that for two years. “Barney Frank always said that was the only half-assed thing I did when I was in Congress, but I’m not sure that’s true,” she joked to the House historian years later.

Even as Schroeder grew in influence and eventually launched a short-lived presidential bid in 1987, she faced doubts and dug up about her behavior: the time she wore a bunny suit during a 1987 armed forces trip to China to look after children in the US message, the fact that she sometimes signed her name with a smiley face in the “P”. Some of the biggest criticisms came when she dropped out of the presidential race and wept openly at the press conference, posting 1,000 Food for Thoughts on Gender, Politics and Public Norms.

But Schroeder has never been afraid to wear her motherhood or femininity on her sleeve, to the point of bringing her kids — and sometimes a pet rabbit named Franklin Delano Rabbit — with her to Denver and on official international trips back and forth. “They usually threw at least two cokes and a glass of milk on me before I got out [the ground]’ she told the house historian years later. “I’ve always been sticky … People were just horrified, but so were we.”

This no-compromise approach to parenting is less rare in many public spaces today. But there are still many barriers to women with young children running for office, says Liuba Grechen Shirley, who ran for a seat in New York’s Congress in 2018 with two young children at home and later founded the group Vote Mama, which empowers young mothers support in politics.

And at least at the congressional level, the pro-family policies that Schröder espoused at the height of her influence have largely been frozen. While the FMLA was groundbreaking 30 years ago, most of its proponents find it woefully incomplete. As Grechen Shirley and Bravo point out, the law only covers 60 percent of workers due to eligibility limitations. Many beneficiaries cannot take advantage of it because they cannot afford to take the time off. (Bravo notes that state laws mandating paid sick leave are gaining momentum — they’ve now been passed in 11 states and the District of Columbia.)

Grechen Shirley attributes the lack of progress to a lack of representation. The 118th Congress has a record number of women and yet that’s still only 153 of 540 voting and non-voting members, or 28 percent of the board. But it’s not just that there aren’t enough women in Congress, claims Grechen Shirley, repeating what Schroeder discovered 50 years ago. That’s because there aren’t enough mothers.

“That’s because our policies aren’t made by people with real-world experience. If we want to change the system, we have to change the system makers,” she says. “So many women wait until their children are grown before running for office, so it’s difficult to build that political power to get a term, to get those leadership positions.”

During her own race, Grechen Shirley successfully applied to the Federal Elections Commission for campaign funds to be used for childcare. And in her own campaign and thereafter, she often repeated a political line, something she’d heard a congresswoman once say: “I have a brain and a womb, and I use both.”

“Damn, I love that quote,” says Grechen Shirley, despite not knowing the source for years.

Of course it was Pat Schroeder.

Source :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *