The Law Library of Congress hosted an engaging discussion with former U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder on Wednesday, June 4. She spoke about her illustrious career as the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado. Deputy Librarian of Congress Robert Dizard Jr. interviewed Schroeder before a full house in LJ-119 of the Thomas Jefferson Building.
The exchange between Dizard and Schroeder was lively, bringing forth Schroeder’s famous wit and leaving the audience with an abundance of great quotes and insights into her life. The exchange also provided a window into the changes that have transpired in Congress over the years.
Schroeder reflected on her storied career in a disarming way, recounting her days at Harvard Law School when she was one of only 15 women in a class of more than 500 men and continuing through her 24 years in Congress. Schroeder became a national figure for her work as a champion of women’s and family issues.
She recalled that upon her arrival in Washington, D.C., one of just 14 women in the House of Representatives at the time, “Members of Congress would say to me, are you a fluke? They couldn’t quite believe that I had gotten elected and the Speaker kept trying to swear in Jim [her husband] and everyone keep saying it’s her.”
Once everyone realized that it was she who was actually the Member, Schroeder’s main priority shifted to effectiveness. She shared an anecdotal recollection of the times, “There were no welcoming committees for me and really no mentors. At that time about half of the women who were in Congress had taken their husbands’ seats after they passed away. They were carrying on their husbands’ agenda.” The Women’s Movement was gaining momentum and Schroeder had strong feelings of support for these issues, so “what are you supposed to do? Stay quiet, stay in your seat, keep coming back and eventually you will have power? And, I thought, by then I will have forgotten why I came.”
Schroeder remembered her efforts to push through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which saw two presidential vetoes before its enactment in 1993. After an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1987, she went on a “Great American Family Tour” to visit primary states and urge prospective political donors to make sure that their checks clearly stated, “do not sign unless you are for family leave.”
In retrospect, Schroeder is disappointed that legislators did not expand the FMLA, “It is still so watered down. I’m almost embarrassed to say that’s my bill. [ . . . ] I do not think there is a capital in the world that talks more about family values and does less.”
Currently, Schroeder lives in Florida and co-teaches an equity issues in U.S. legislation course at Rollins College. She is an active member on the National Governing Board of Common Cause, an advocacy organization that aims to empower citizenry “to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.”
The Law Library gratefully acknowledges Bill Burton, founder of the Burton Foundation, for his generous support of this program.
Update: The event video was added below.