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Patricia Schroeder

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When Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) came to the House of Representatives in 1972 and was assigned to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, her welcome was about as warm as her home district, Denver, in a howling snowstorm. Then-chairman F. Edward Hebert, an avowed segregationist and an old-bull Dixiecrat, made Schroeder share a seat with Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland), an African American who had been elected two years earlier. At one point in her first term, Hebert told Schroeder that if she used her female body parts--Hebert reportedly used another word--more and her mouth less, she would go further on the committee.

Schroeder, then one of 14 women in the House of Representatives, rose to chair a subcommittee of the defense panel, and became a leading figure on several powerful House panels, before deciding to retire this January, with the start of the 105th Congress. The longest-serving woman in Congress picked off nemeses like Hebert with a quick wit, a sharp tongue and a determination to make government the ally of women, children and federal employees, including servicemen and women.

Getting a jump on the rebellious Watergate class of 1974, Schroeder told all to the press, paving the way for the retirement of Hebert and many of his ilk. Presidents, too, felt the sting of Schroeder’s tongue: It was Schroeder, for instance, who dubbed Ronald Reagan “the Teflon president” and made the label stick.

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The Colorado lawmaker, a Harvard-educated attorney and mother of two, quickly became a champion of liberal causes ranging from abortion rights to legal protection for gays and lesbians. She helped found the bipartisan Congressional Women’s Caucus in 1977. She entered a crowded field running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987, promising a “rendezvous with reality.” After rising to the middle of the field despite a late start, Schroeder’s campaign rendezvoused with the reality of a fund-raising shortfall, and the candidate bowed out tearfully.

In 1990, she became the only woman to chair a House committee, the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families. (The panel was eliminated by Republicans when they gained control of the House in 1994.) Schroeder used the committee to help shape a Democratic family agenda that became a centerpiece of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. The first piece of legislation that Clinton signed into law--the Family and Medical Leave Act--was Schroeder’s handiwork, along with laws that helped reform spousal pensions, opened military jobs to women and forced federally funded medical researchers to include women in their studies.

With her retirement from Congress, Schroeder is slated to teach government and politics at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. An avowed generalist, Schroeder fears only that academia will try to push her into narrow realms of expertise. At the same time, the 56-year-old congresswoman says she is ready for a period of uncharacteristic quiet that will give her successor, Denver Democrat Diana DeGette, a chance to establish herself in the 105th Congress.

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Question:. Is Congress a sexist workplace?

Answer: Yes. When I first got elected, someone said to me, “This is about Chivas Regal, thousand-dollar bills, Lear jets and beautiful women. Why are you here?” That was just a part of the equation, for some. Not for all; there’s always been wonderful people here. But for an awful lot of people, that was part of the entitlement that went with power. There’s still some of that here--absolutely no question.

Secondly, it’s very competitive, these [lawmakers] are all like class presidents. Part of the game is to try and narrow the group whom you think can be real players. So if you can keep shutting women out, that helps you do that. I had some freshmen women in yesterday, and they were appalled. They said, “We’ve just come from the caucus. The guys would hear us try to say something and just keep on talking.” I said, “Hello!?, welcome to the 105th Congress.” This is what it is.

Q: What did your 1987 bid for the presidency teach you about American politics?

A: There are whole parts of the country that had never seen a woman run for Congress, for Senate. People would say things without realizing how contradictory they were. They’d say, “I’m so glad you’re running, because the other seven candidates all look alike, sound alike and dress alike. But you don’t look presidential.” Now, how do you handle that?

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Or you would give a speech on some kind of policy, and people would want to ask about why are you wearing earrings, why aren’t you wearing earrings, why do you dye your hair, why don’t you dye your hair, why do you wear green? You’d say, “Can we talk about the speech?”

Finally, it makes you understand the tremendous power of the media to define you, and I couldn’t figure out what you did about it. Men would say, “Why don’t you want me to vote for you? You only talk to women.” I’d say, “No, no, no . . . I want every vote I can get.” But that’s what they saw on TV . . . . There were seven candidates, and the TV would always show Jesse Jackson with African Americans, and they would always show me with women. So how you work out that ghettoization was a real issue.

Q: Does it surprise you in the end that your crying was the thing that stands out in so many people’s memories of your presidential bid?

A: Oh, yeah. And it was basically women columnists who hit the hardest on that. I’ve kept a crying file since 1987. That was a great example of people saying things like, “Well, never again can a woman run for president in my lifetime because she shed tears.” You don’t see anybody saying never again can a man be governor of New Hampshire because [John] Sununu [Jr.] cried so hard he couldn’t even finish his speech when he was saying goodbye. Or never again could a man run for president because I think every single one of them has shed tears in public now.

And then people say, “We don’t want somebody’s finger on the button that cries.” Okay, you could debate that. I don’t want anybody’s finger on the button that doesn’t cry. But everybody that I’ve known whose finger has been on the button has been publicly crying.

Q: When do you think the country will have a woman president?

A: That really ought to be the next generation’s No. 1 goal. That is really breaking through the glass ceiling. It would open up all sorts of things. It’s kind of embarrassing that former heads of state who are women are now getting ready to form an organization--and we don’t have anybody in it. We’re getting left at the gate. I can’t understand why.

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Q: What do the Democrats need to do if they ever want to regain control of Congress again?

A: They really need to be a team instead of a coalition of power brokers. And [House Minority Leader Richard A.] Gephardt has worked hard to do that. But, really, what you find is everybody with their own little ant hill and they don’t want to be told what to do with their ant hill. So, on every single issue, you’re back out trying to put together some kind of a coalition.

Congressional Democrats also have to be able to say what they’re for. Each one of them is for something different. You’ve got to have some kind of a theme. It doesn’t mean you can’t have differences, but what are the core principles? I think that’s very, very hard to see right now.

Q: Are Democrats constitutionally capable of the kind of organization and discipline it takes to translate those kinds of principles into legislative action?

A: I don’t think they are. And I think they don’t quite understand how the times have changed. You’ve got to remember that, basically for 40 years after Truman’s death, there were very few Democrats in the White House. So most of the Democrats who are in Congress now got used to being the check to the president. They were a pretty big deal in that role. A president of the United States would have to deal with them if they were chairmen of the committees, and they really liked that.

Now they’re kind of at a loss because the president of the United States is in their party, and he doesn’t have to deal with them. And nobody else has to deal with them, and they don’t quite know what to do. Democrats are uncomfortable with admitting they were more comfortable when there was a Republican president and they were in charge of the House. But they certainly had more congressional power.

Obviously, what they have to do is more like what Newt [Gingrich, speaker of the House] had to do to regain the Congress. That is, he built a very strong, cohesive team. Instead, the Democratic leaders are all sitting there waiting to once again be chairmen of something or other and to have their staff and to be able to run something.

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Q: What are the next frontiers in policymaking for women?

A: The issue of taxing women is one. This is an issue we tried very hard to bring up every year in the Women’s Caucus, in our economic-equity package. The tax code is so skewed against women, because it really is a 1930s product. But we never got it off the ground.

There’s a new book titled “Taxing Women,” by Edward J. McCaffery. It could provide the academic base for a new push. I hope every woman in America gets it. It tells you how we minimize women in our economic thinking.

The other book that’s coming out in the spring is “The Feminist Dollar,” by Phyllis Katz, which goes through every major corporation in America and rates them on what are their employment policies vis-a-vis women and working families; do they have high-ranking women in their management; do they contribute through their community funds, things that benefit women; and, finally, do they have women on their board of directors. You can imagine the highest-scoring companies are like in the 40s rather than in the hundreds, and many are absolute zeros.

So if you take this little book when it comes out, and put it on some nice laminated cards, and start showing them when you shop, it could really change the way companies behave. Look at women’s economic power. Women control the purchases in this country of enough so that it’s equal to the gross national product of Japan. Jesse Jackson can organize a boycott, and get results. What’s the matter with us? Are we such wimps that we’re afraid to do that?

I think there’s going to be more change through that than anything we’re ever going to do in the Congress. It’s the movement that’s ready to go.

Q: Are you surprised by the Army’s sexual-harassment scandal? What are the likenesses or similarities or dissimilarities to Tailhook?

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A: I’m not surprised. If you’ve got a survey that says 60-some percent of the women in the Army say they were sexually harassed, and then you look at how many filed complaints, and it’s 160. Hmm, 160 is not 60% of Army women.

They’ve said zero tolerance, they’ve mouthed the right words, but it’s always been issue No. 7,421, and they never get to it. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is, the conventional wisdom has been that the services didn’t want women, that women were forced on them by the outside. There’s a lot of people in the Army who understand women are here to stay, that they’re needed. They don’t like that attitude, but they’re not going to risk their careers to stand up and say it publicly, because this culture has just been allowed to grow and grow and grow like a cancer.

As to Tailhook, the Army’s case is more dissimilar. It’s dissimilar all across the board.

First of all, you’re talking about probably the most vulnerable relationship, and that is your brand-new, raw, 18-year-old recruit coming in and being told to do whatever her drill sergeant tells her to do. The average age of a drill sergeant is about 30. So you’ve got 30-year-olds preying on 18-year-olds. And you have a system that has said, “You do what this person says because your entire career depends upon their performance evaluation of you in these early days.”

If they do something that is illegal, immoral or whatever, and you turn them in and they write your performance rating, how does that work? If you’re an 18-year-old, this has got to be really confusing. The military says, “Well, we gave them all these manuals and everything on their first day.” Right! They look like phone books, and you know they absorb them!

Tailhook was a professional convention that naval aviators went to that got more out of control every year. And it was wrong that the whole command went there and saw it and didn’t pay any attention. And that people were hitting on fellow officers who were there. But they were fellow officers, and they did know the system. They’re not 18-year-olds, and they were able to finally bring the system to its knees.

Q: What advice would you give not just to the young woman coming in behind you in your seat, but a woman, any woman coming to Congress now for the first time?

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A: I think women still should never kid themselves that they’re going to come here and be part of the team. And you ought to come here with a very clear definition of what it is you want to do, and that you will not be deterred. There’s a whole group of little harpies out there every day trying to talk you out of it. They really don’t want you pushing the envelope, because then it becomes choose-up-sides time for everybody.

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