A masterful Machiavellian matriarch

Former Rep. Pat Schroeder talks about her 24-year stint in Congress, sharing a chair with Ron Dellums and why Monica Lewinsky is no victim.

Published July 13, 1998 8:41AM (EDT)

Pat Schroeder was a novelty when she entered Congress in 1972: a 32-year-old mother with two young children. In her 24-year tenure as a U.S. Congresswoman representing Colorado, she became known as an unabashed liberal with a sharp tongue and a repository of killer one-liners. Once while campaigning she was asked why she was running as "a woman candidate." Her reply: "Like, what are my other choices?" And does the term "Teflon president" ring a bell? That's signature Schroeder. While scrambling eggs one morning in a no-stick pan she thought of Ronald Reagan and how nothing ever stuck to him -- despite Iran-contra and other controversies, his popularity never waned.

In her recently released memoir, "24 Years of Housework and the Place Is Still a Mess," Schroeder recounts the power plays and high-stakes games of parliamentary ping-pong she engaged in during her career. A masterful Machiavellian matriarch, Schroeder was the longest serving woman in congressional history. She drafted the nation's first sexual harassment laws, led the charge when Anita Hill came forward with allegations against Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas and sponsored the Violence Against Women Act, among dozens of other pieces of legislation that promoted the health and safety of women and children. Her book also describes her hectic home life -- how she raised two children and nourished a marriage while jetting between Washington and her home district.

Since leaving politics in 1996, Schroeder has taken over as the president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers. When I spoke with her recently at her Washington office, in some ways she was still the consummate politician -- prolific yet practiced. But she was also a real (read: harried) working woman. She rushed into our meeting a half hour late, apologized for her tardiness and then unwrapped her breakfast -- a chocolate nut brownie. Any woman who has a brownie for breakfast has my infinite respect. While Schroeder savored her brownie, she threw me a few interesting morsels.

Why did you decide to write a memoir?

It was a very nice way to close a 24-year career as a politician. I figured I should do it now because a year from now, or 10 years from now, it will all be a blur. I'm also just very frustrated that so many young people have an entirely different take on the system than I did at their age -- they don't want anything to do with politics because it's not perfect. When I was young, I knew it wasn't perfect but I wanted to get in there and fix it. At 57 years of age I haven't found anything that's perfect, or I would share it with everybody.

Why do you think young people have given up?

They think that you can't possibly be in politics without being indicted, put in jail or pegged as a sex maniac. Or they think that to be a politician you have to sacrifice a family life. My experience has been totally different.

How did Congress change in the 24 years you were there?

It depends on what you are measuring. You know my story about
sharing the chair with Ron Dellums. [When Schroeder successfully lobbied for an appointment to the influential Armed Services Committee, its chairman, F. Edward Hebert, retaliated by forcing her and Dellums, the only African-American on the committee, to share one chair between them.] From that standpoint it is better. I don't think we would have to share a chair today because no chairman has that kind of autocratic power. But the ideology wars, the number of personal attacks -- that is not progress, I think that is retro.

In your book you mention an incident when Newt Gingrich tried to keep you off a congressional delegation. It just seems so petty.

It is petty, but he backed off. When that happened to me the first time [with Hebert], I had to pave my own way. This time Newt realized if I went to the press with it, he'd lose. With Hebert, I went to the press with it and people just said, "That's what chairmen do."

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The only thing the American people might hate more than government is the
press. But you make the press out to be a watchdog of sorts.

Lately I think the press has been in this whole gossip mode and has not been paying
much attention to issues. Maybe with Brill's [Content] magazine they'll get
back to where they were. Jefferson always said if he had to choose
between a Democratic government and a free press he would choose a free press
because a free press is supposed to be the great monitor of what is going on.
Often I found the press to be very helpful in educating people about the issues I was trying to move forward. If you could get journalists to write about
issues, then eventually people might read about them and begin to move the body politic. And tell me, where are those kinds of in-depth issue-oriented stories this year?

You've been out of Congress for almost a year. How do you think they've been doing since you've been gone?

Congress hasn't done a lot. There are so many issues that they're not covering: child care, environmental issues, how to make college affordable for the average
family, the "Patients Bill of Rights" -- which has become a bigger issue as we see more and more people getting crushed by HMOs. I think it's very interesting that in the movie "As Good as It Gets" Helen Hunt gets a standing ovation when she attacks HMOs and
Congress can't even can't figure out what to do about the system!

I think the Republicans came in with a great mission and they wanted to accomplish things from their 10-point program [the "Contract With America"]. The problem was, the program didn't have a second page! They don't want to do anything the Democrats want to do. And meanwhile, the journalists all cover gossip and sex. So they've kind of abandoned the ship too. It can't go on forever -- I mean aren't people finally going to tire of all this?

I assume you're talking about the Lewinsky affair. Why do you think that with Anita Hill, feminists were saying, "We have to give her a fair hearing, get her story out there." But with Monica Lewinsky, the same groups are sort of backing off and saying her story has changed over time, and the relationship, if there was one, was consensual anyway.

When people like myself helped pen the sexual harassment
laws we foresaw them as something that would be used by women who were
victims or men who were victims. We didn't foresee them as something
men were going to use in their power games. I mean Monica Lewinsky is not
saying she is a victim. Anita Hill was saying she was a victim. The
women in the Packwood case were saying they were victims. We have
this body of law and these victims are protected and they have a right to
be heard. Monica Lewinsky is not pursuing the case, she's not declaring herself a victim.

So in your eyes Monica Lewinsky is a pawn?

I don't think she's a pawn. I do think she has been dragged into this. This huge
investigation that's going on started with Whitewater -- and they've now
closed everything down in Arkansas and they found nothing. After
all these years the only thing they have is some 21-year-old whose friend taped her
bragging without her knowledge, and they hold her for perjury. I think most people are going to say, is that really what the law is supposed to do?

So only women who say they are victims can be sexually harassed?

It's up to the victim to decide if they've been harassed and then to pursue it. If somebody bothers you and you decide to pursue it, then I'm
all for it. If you decide not to pursue it, and someone else says, "No, you're going to pursue it because I can't stand that guy. And I'm going to drag you in here and
make you get an attorney and I'm going to accuse you of perjury and I'm
going to make you talk because I'm going to bring him down," then you're
becoming another kind of victim -- you're becoming a victim of people's power
wars. It's depressing.

A recent Time magazine article proclaimed that feminism is dead. Do you agree?

It's not in great shape, but I don't know if it's dead. I just came from the doctor and he was telling me about his 11-year-old who has been on a diet since she was 3. And I'm like, what? In Parade magazine a couple of weekends ago teens were saying it is better to have a boyfriend that batters you than not have a boyfriend at all. What is this self-esteem problem in our country? I mean, it's the same old thing about bodies, about men.

I'm stunned at how slow women's progress has been. I look at the House of Representatives and here we are at the turn of the century and we have 55 women out of 435! We'd hoped that the work and family issues would be much more resolved. We're still making women feel guilty about everything. They're guilty if they stay home because they're supposed to be working. They're guilty if they work because they should be home taking care of the family. We really should have buried a lot of that. I find it sad that women haven't used their political power a lot more to just say, "Stop this! We're not going to have full-time jobs 24 hours a day!" We've got to
have some kind of support.

This brings me to the title of your book -- a sort of play on words that perpetuates the woman-in-the-home stereotype.

When you get to be middle-aged like I am, you really decide that life is
about maintenance. If I had said, "Well, I was in Congress for 24 years and now
everything is wonderful and we'll all live happily ever after,"
that would be a joke.

You've inspired many women. Who are some good role models?

I still like my role models. Women like Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Margaret Sangers of the world. These were just amazing women that totally broke out of the grain. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the wealthiest women in
America and yet she was out picketing with the maids and she never got into this beauty thing. The United States women's hockey team is making a new kind of statement and they don't look like Ally McBeal or whatever her name is.

You've picked a lot of doers.

Yeah, I don't think of women as geisha girls.

By Lesley Gold

Lesley Gold is a producer at CNN in Washington.

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