Patricia (Pat) Scott Schroeder (1940–) represented Colorado’s First Congressional District—the city of Denver—in the US House of Representatives from 1973 to 1997. The first female US Representative elected in Colorado, she championed liberal issues, including opposing the Vietnam War and advocating for women’s rights and reforms affecting families. A Democrat and an early feminist, she was known for her razor-sharp wit and political barbs. She spent her twenty-four years in Congress battling Republicans and the old boys’ network of political favors.
Patricia Scott was born on July 30, 1940, in Portland, Oregon. Her father, Lee Scott, served in the Army Air Corps, and the family moved often. Her brother, Mike, was born in 1943. The family eventually settled in Des Moines, Iowa, where her father started an aviation insurance company and her mother, Bernice Scott, worked as a first-grade teacher. Pat was a gifted student and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1958.
Pat’s parents did not raise her with the stereotypical 1950s vision that a girl’s role in life was as a helpmate, wife, and mother. Instead, they encouraged her independence, valued her opinions, and nurtured her diverse interests. Her father taught her how to rebuild cars and planes, as well as how to remodel their historic house. Pat became involved in Girl Scouts, especially excelling at outdoor activities. At age sixteen, she earned her pilot’s license.
Her parents were Democrats who supported liberal causes and candidates. Politics and current events were the subjects of dinner-table conversations. Her role models were Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Margaret Sanger, whom she referred to as “doers” who broke new ground and challenged the status quo.
College and Law School
After high school, Patricia Scott enrolled at the University of Minnesota, working as a pilot to help pay tuition. At that time, women were discouraged from pursuing degrees in any fields besides teaching and nursing. Scott felt out of place and excluded because of her ambition for a career instead of the customary “M.R.S.” degree, that is, getting married and raising a family.
During college, she became involved in liberal political activism. Serving on the student senate, she was inspired by Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey’s commitment to racial and economic justice and Allard Lowenstein’s antiapartheid movement. She graduated at the top of her class in three years, with a major in history and minors in philosophy and political science.
Scott was accepted to Harvard Law School as one of nineteen women in a class of 550. Facing blatant sexism and a brutally competitive environment, the female classmates—including Elizabeth Dole and Janet Reno—formed deep, enduring bonds with each other.
Scott met Jim Schroeder, a fellow Harvard Law student, at a party, and they were married before the start of their second year. He admired and encouraged her independent and ambitious personality.
Colorado and Congress
After graduation, the couple moved to Colorado. Jim was offered jobs at top law firms in Colorado, while Pat had trouble finding a job. Law firms were reluctant to hire female lawyers, believing they were less capable and would leave the job when they started a family. Pat took a job at the Denver office of the federal National Labor Relations Board, taught at Colorado colleges, and did legal volunteer work for Planned Parenthood.
In 1966 the Schroeders had their first child, Scott, followed in 1970 by their second child, Jamie Christine. There was no maternity leave for women, so Schroeder quit her job to take care of their children.
Jim Schroeder ran for a seat in the state legislature in 1970. He lost but remained involved in Colorado politics. In 1971, when a committee was looking for a candidate to run in the First Congressional District, which had a popular Republican incumbent, someone suggested his wife. Pat Schroeder decided to run, with Jim acting as her campaign manager. Campaigning on an anti–Vietnam War platform, she also focused on children, the elderly, housing, and the environment. From an office in their basement, the campaign created thought-provoking posters and planned celebrity fundraisers that included Gloria Steinem and Shirley MacLaine. Schroeder canvassed Denver neighborhoods to meet voters personally. When the 1972 election returns came in, Schroeder had won 52 percent of the vote.
Inside the Beltway
Schroeder was thirty-two years old and the mother of two small children when the family moved to Washington, DC, for Schroeder to serve in Congress. As one of the youngest women ever elected to Congress, she received considerable attention from the media, her congressional colleagues, and the public. She acknowledged she was juggling two jobs—working woman and mother—bringing a diaper bag to Congress and keeping crayons in her office. She lived her conviction that women across the country could do both jobs well.
Legislating for Women
When Schroeder entered Congress in 1973, she was one of only fourteen women in the House. At the time, women earned 40 percent less than men, could not get a credit card in their own name, had limited access to birth control, could be fired for being pregnant, and made up a disproportionate share of people living in poverty. The women’s rights movement was making demands for the Equal Rights Amendment, federal assistance for child care, an end to gender discrimination at work, and freedom of choice concerning abortion. Schroeder was determined to make the government an ally of women and children.
In 1977 Schroeder became a founding member of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, chairing it for ten years. Schroeder focused her energy on women’s rights and reforms affecting the family, including women’s health care, childcare, maternity leave, family planning, and gender equity in the workplace. In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act culminated years of work in this area. Colorado ratified the Equal Rights Amendment under her leadership, though the amendment failed to garner enough states to become part of the Constitution.
In 1987 Schroeder briefly sought the Democratic nomination for president. Realizing that she would not be able to get enough delegates for the nomination, Schroeder resigned from the race in an emotional press conference. She teared up during the announcement, causing hostile backlash from feminists and conservatives alike.
House Armed Services Committee
Schroeder entered Congress at a time when the Vietnam War was dividing the nation. During her first term, she became the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee to the dismay of entrenched committee members. She advocated for the rights of women in the military and crusaded against excessive military spending. The Military Family Leave Act, which Schroeder sponsored, improved benefits and living conditions for military personnel and their families. She brought attention to sexual harassment in the military and advocated for women to serve on combat missions.
Schroeder spent twelve terms in Congress and was known for her quick, biting wit and her clever one-liners that cut to the heart of an issue. Most famously, she dubbed Ronald Regan the “Teflon President” for retaining his popularity in spite of high-profile scandals in his administration. None of the dirt stuck to him. When asked about her ability to balance her political work with motherhood, she replied, “I have a brain and a uterus, and they both work.” She joked that if the Pentagon officials were women they would always be pregnant because they never said no.
Schroeder was aggressive in showing her opposition to the status quo, organizing press conferences, interviews, and protests to publicize her positions. Despite her no-nonsense approach to issues, she enjoyed the spotlight and embraced a certain amount of “quirkiness,” including dressing in costumes for holidays and signing her name with a smiley face.
Schroeder did not seek reelection in 1996 and left the House of Representatives the following year. During her tenure in Congress, she opened doors for women in political office and left a legacy of legislation that valued women and families. She was succeeded by Democrat Diana DeGette.
From 1997 to 2007, Schroeder worked as president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. She advocated for stronger copyright laws and making materials more accessible to people with disabilities. She has also written two books of her own: Champion of the Great American Family (1989) and 24 Years of House Work . . . and the Place Is Still a Mess (1998).
Schroeder was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995. She and her husband retired and relocated to Celebration, Florida, where she remains active in local and national politics.