Patricia Schroeder, congresswoman who wielded barbed wit, dies at 82

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Former congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, a megaphone for the women’s movement, the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee and a liberal Democrat known for her barbed wit, notably coining the term “Teflon president” to lambaste President Ronald Reagan, died March 13 at a hospital in Celebration, Fla. She was 82.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said her daughter, Jamie Cornish.

Mrs. Schroeder, who grew up in a household where her father assumed women could do anything, earned a pilot’s license at 15, weathered sexism to become a Harvard-trained lawyer and was a 32-year-old mother of two when she was first elected to Congress from Colorado in 1972. “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use them both,” she quipped when one male lawmaker questioned how she could be a wife, mother and congresswoman.

When she arrived in Washington, there were only 14 women in the House, a number of whom were widows filling out the terms of their deceased husbands. She described the institution as “an overaged frat house.”

During her 12 terms in the House of Representatives, Mrs. Schroeder was outspoken on issues that ranged from women’s rights and family matters to military policy. She was appointed to the House Armed Services Committee, and then fought vigorously to be heard and respected.

F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana, the committee’s hard-line conservative Democratic chairman, allowed just one seat in the hearing room to be shared by Mrs. Schroeder and Ron Dellums, a newly elected African American congressman from California. She recalled Hebert saying, “The two of you are only worth half the normal member.”

Mrs. Schroeder said she and Dellums “sat cheek to cheek on one chair, trying to retain some dignity.”

Hébert was stripped of his chairmanship two years later in a revolt by younger committee members, but before his ouster, Mrs. Schroeder did her best to get under his skin. He returned the favor, refusing to approve her appointment to the U.S. delegation to a SALT disarmament conference in Geneva on chemical warfare.

“I wouldn’t send you to represent this committee at a dogfight,” Hébert reportedly remarked, according to a Washington Post profile of Mrs. Schroeder. The State Department eventually waived the rule requiring the chairman’s approval of all nominations, and Mrs. Schroeder made the trip.

While often on the losing end of defense debates, Mrs. Schroeder believed that her fight against the Pentagon’s “outrageous” requests helped to create “a political climate conducive to meaningful reform.” A strong proponent of arms control, she derided the Armed Services Committee as a Pentagon “lap dog” and rankled the military brass by constantly questioning their spending habits.

During a 1973 debate over a weapons system, she used mocking language invoking a slick Madison Avenue sales job: “Is it bigger? Is it faster? Is it more maneuverable? Does it give closer, more comfortable shaves?” On another occasion, she chided those who thought that “killing an enemy 15 times over makes us more secure than if we can kill him only five times over.”

On the domestic front, Mrs. Schroeder from 1973 until 1995 co-chaired the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, a bipartisan group of lawmakers devoted to advancing legislation on reproductive rights, women’s equity and workplace flexibility for parents.

She was the primary sponsor of the National Child Protection Act of 1993, which established procedures for national criminal background checks for child-care providers, and she played a pivotal role in the passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which was intended to help law enforcement and victim services organizations fight rape and other forms of violent crime against women.

Mrs. Schroeder also was a strong advocate for the Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act of 1990, which provided lower-income women with breast and cervical cancer screening and post-screening diagnostic services in an effort to enhance early detection. The law, however, did not pay for treatment, placing many uninsured women in a predicament of not being able to afford care. A decade later, Congress passed legislation providing medical assistance to eligible uninsured women through Medicaid.

She spent nine years championing the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was approved by Congress in 1993 and provides job protection for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the care of a newborn, sick child or parent. And as chairwoman of a Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee, she was a leading advocate for federal employees in such areas as whistleblower legislation.

“Pat Schroeder was the face and voice of a new kind of congresswoman,” Ruth B. Mandel, former director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and founder of its Center for American Women and Politics, said in a 2018 interview for this obituary. “Throughout her years of dual focus and leadership on women’s and family issues and on military equipment and the armed services, there was nothing traditional about Congresswoman Schroeder.”

Two decades before Hillary Clinton first ran for president, Mrs. Schroeder made a brief exploratory bid in 1987 for the White House, but dropped out with a tearful speech. Critics on the right, citing the tears, derided her as weak, while some feminists criticized her for reinforcing the stereotype of women as emotional.

“The critics who seemed most insane to me were those who said they wouldn’t want the person who had a ‘finger on the button’ to be someone who cries,” she wrote in her 1989 book, “Champion of the Great American Family.” “I answered that I wouldn’t want that person to be someone who doesn’t cry.”

Resistance at Harvard Law

Patricia Nell Scott was born in Portland, Ore., on July 30, 1940. Her father was an aviation insurance adjuster, and her mother taught elementary school. The family moved frequently, and by the time Nell entered high school in Des Moines, she had lived in six other cities.

She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1961 and received a law degree from Harvard in 1964. She was one of just 15 women in a class of more than 500 at Harvard, where she said she encountered jarring resistance to her presence, with the dean telling the women, “Do you realize you have taken this position from a man?”

She was in awe of one woman who stood her ground, telling the dean, “Well, I am only here because I could not get in at Yale.”

In 1962, she married James Schroeder, also a Harvard Law student. In addition to her husband, of Celebration, survivors include two children, Scott Schroeder of Providence and Jamie Cornish of Bozeman, Mont.; a brother; and four grandchildren.

After Harvard, the Schroeders moved to Denver to practice law. Mrs. Schroeder also signed on as legal counsel to Planned Parenthood of Colorado. In 1972, her husband, a Democratic precinct captain, urged his wife to run for Congress in an ordinarily Democratic district centered in Denver that was represented by freshman Republican Mike McKevitt.

Mrs. Schroeder won the general election by about 8,000 votes, relying heavily on grass-roots volunteers and running on a liberal, anti-Vietnam War platform. During the campaign, her opponent referred to her as “Little Patsy” and dispatched a group of young women in plaid skirts called “Mike’s girls” whose job was to describe him as a “great guy.”

She later learned that she was under surveillance by the FBI and subject to a series of dirty tricks, with the bureau having paid her husband’s barber to be an informer.

When Mrs. Schroeder declined to seek reelection in 1996, she acknowledged that she had become frustrated by the loss of power after Republicans won the House majority in 1994 as well as by growing partisanship in Congress.

After leaving Washington — at the time as the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives — Mrs. Schroeder moved to Celebration and spent 11 years as president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers. In that job, she advocated stronger copyright laws, opposed Google’s plan to post limited content of digitized books online, and was critical of libraries for making use of electronic content without compensating publishers and writers.

Among Mrs. Schroeder’s chief legacies is a skill at a pithy quote. Some labeled her a grandstander, but her phrasemaking often helped her get her message across to the public. She literally cooked up the term Teflon president while making eggs for her children using a Teflon pan. While the term has come to be seen as an admirable quality in a leader who can overcome deficiencies that would doom anyone else, Mrs. Schroeder’s gibe was not intended as a compliment.

Politically accountability, she said, slid off Reagan like the eggs from her pan. She took to the House floor in 1983 and announced, “After carefully watching Ronald Reagan, he is attempting a great breakthrough in political technology; he has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency.”

“He sees to it that nothing sticks to him,” Mrs. Schroeder added. “He is responsible for nothing. . . . He is just the master of ceremonies at someone else’s dinner.”

As the phrase caught on, she later told the Chicago Tribune, officials from the chemical giant DuPont, which holds the Teflon trademark, made an appointment to see her and threatened a copyright infringement lawsuit.

“They were most unhappy,” she said. “A guy came by my office from their corporate headquarters and kind of snarled and growled about it. I could hardly keep a straight face.”

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