Patricia Schroeder

Although Colorado first elected women to its legislature in 1894, it was not until 1972 that Patricia Scott Schroeder became its first congresswoman.  Her quarter-century career there made her the all-time leader on women’s issues, and her campaign for the 1988 presidential election was based on her belief that “America is man enough to back a woman.” 

Born in Portland, Oregon in 1940, she was a barrier-breaker from age 15, when she earned a pilot’s license; she paid her way through the University of Minnesota as an aviator claims adjuster.  She went on to Harvard Law, where her 1964 class had 19 women among more than 500 men.  Schroeder later described this as “the best preparation for the infiltrating the boys’ club of Congress.” 

She married and moved with her husband, James Schroeder, to Denver, where she was an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board.  She also did pro-bono work for Planned Parenthood and Denver Fair Housing Group and taught political science and constitutional law at the University of Colorado and Regis College, while also bearing two children.

They still were preschoolers when Jim Schroeder, also an attorney, encouraged Pat to challenge Denver’s Republican congressman in 1972 -- a turbulent year when students at the University of Colorado “produced a mini-revolution.”  At just age 32, she upset the incumbent and narrowly won. 

Her opposition to the Vietnam War was key to her victory, and she worked to become the first woman on the House Armed Services Committee.  Other congresswomen held similar positions during World War II, but the postwar era was more conservative and the Pentagon more powerful, and Schroeder had to win this appointment over the objections of the chairman.  She used it to press issues related to women, including the first entrance of women into military academies, hearings on sexual harassment in the military, and the passage of the other acts to protect the wives and children of military men. 

As co-founder of the bi-partisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and as Democratic Whip, Schroeder became the lead sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment, as well as other legislation to secure women’s rights in employment, education, and finance.

Schroeder thus found firm support among feminist for her 1988 presidential campaign – but not enough to win the Democratic nomination that went to Michael Dukakis.  She came closer than any woman thus far, coming in third in a June 1987 Time poll. NOW pledged $400,000, enough for her to qualify for federal matching funds, and Schroeder visited 29 states during 1987.  Ever practical, however, her motto from the beginning was “no dough, no go,” and when she could not raise sufficient money to compete against better-funded men, she ended her campaign that autumn.  Her strong sense of humor was reflected in her response to inquiries about running as a woman:  “What choice do I have?”

Returning to Congress, she continued to focus on child care, family medical leave, flexibility in the workplace and pay equity, as well as discrimination against homosexuals.  When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, she – and women -- had a milestone year, passing thirty long-delayed feminist bills that year.  When Pat Schroeder retired in 1995, colleagues from both parties took the floor to praise her, with congresswomen acknowledging that every one of them was walking in her footsteps.

With the growth of electronic information in the 1990s, intellectual property rights had become another major interest for her, and she headed the Association of American Publishers (AAP) after “retirement” in Florida.  Patricia Schroeder remains an active Democrat and frequently assists aspiring women with their campaigns.

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Works Cited:

  • Reprinted from NWHM Cyber Exhibit "Women Who Ran for President"