Pat Schroeder: Stellar Role Model

Editors note: Pat Schroeder died on March 11, 2023.


In 1973, I rode a Greyhound bus from the Texas Panhandle to Washington, D.C. to participate in a program called “Washington Semester.” I was 18, so naïve that I told people I was excited to be going North for the first time – until someone set me straight that D.C. was south of the Mason-Dixon Line.


How extraordinary that fall semester was: the Watergate hearings were underway; the “Saturday Night Massacre” rocked D.C., and we students had a front row seat as Congress managed a constitutional crisis. My internship was with Pat Schroeder, serving her first year in Congress – just 32 when she was elected in 1972 from Denver, defeating a GOP incumbent despite Nixon’s landslide victory. Her campaign was anti-war, pro-family and children, pro-choice, and pro-environment – and, she later learned, under FBI surveillance. No one expected her to win, much less to become, in time, the most senior woman in Congress.


In 1973, only 16 of the 435 Congressmembers were women. Pat arrived with two young children, one still in diapers – shocking! It was an eventful legislative year: the Case-Church Amendment ended direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam; the Endangered Species Act was enacted. Pat fought to become the first woman on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), to the dismay of its chairman, Edward Hébert (D-Louisiana). He was forced to seat her on “his” committee, but refused her an actual seat, requiring her to share a chair with Ron Dellums (D-Oakland). Throughout her tenure (or, as she joked, her “24 years in a federal institution”), she worked to control military spending, improve conditions for military families, champion women and gays in the military, and fund important medical research at military facilities to address the woeful under-inclusion of women in research trials.

Pat Schroeder and Betty Wheeler at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, c. Sept. 1996)

Pat was a stellar role model – creative and unorthodox (even Harvard Law couldn’t erase those traits!), energetic, brainy, generous with her time. She never forgot a birthday. And she gave me a priceless gift: a wonderful beginning and end to my own career. After that 1973 internship, I worked for her campaign in 1974, then, during law school at Georgetown, as her legislative aide. One highlight: representing her in the Coalition to End Discrimination Against Pregnant Women, which succeeded in legislatively overturning a Supreme Court decision ruling that pregnancy-based discrimination was not “sex discrimination.”


Some 15 years later, I got a call from D.C., asking if I would return to serve as her counsel. With lots of cross-country flights between my Del Mar home and D.C., I first worked for HASC’s Research & Technology Subcommittee, which Pat chaired; then, during the ”Gingrich revolution,” as her counsel on the Judiciary Committee, where a highlight was our work to protect creative works in the digital age, and “lowlights” included unsuccessfully opposing the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Act,” and managing the opposition to the so-called “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” bill on the House floor.


Through it all, I had the privilege of watching Pat Schroeder in action – a sight to behold. She set the bar high, and the world is a better place because she was here.