Pat Schroeder mastered the use of humor in politics long before social media
What hard-fought success Schroeder got — “It took nine months to deliver each of my children and nine years to deliver FMLA,” she’d later say — came from “her humanity and her persistence and her humor,” says Ellen Bravo, the former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, one of many national groups that worked for the bill’s passage. Year after year, Schroeder leaned into the absurdity of Washington, deploying a brand of witty straight talk that drew attention to her causes, well before social media and viral memes.
“She was able to not only withstand heinous attacks on her, but also direct withering responses against the people” who pursued her, Bravo says. “She manipulated them in a way that ate away at the veneer of authority.”
Schroeder is the one who said that Ronald Reagan had a “Teflon-covered chair” (an idea he supposedly came up with while frying eggs on a non-stick pan) and dubbed George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle members of the “lucky sperm club”. “because they were able to run for office with the advantage of family wealth.
And she faced her own indignities with humor and theatrics. When she won a seat on the House Armed Services Committee early in her term, the chairwoman, a Louisiana Democrat named F. Edward Hébert, was angry that she and Ron Dellums, a black Democrat from California, were appointed to the committee against Hébert. wishes. He only provided one chair for the two of them, so Schroeder and Dellums huddled on it together — “cheek to cheek,” she would later write — and sat that way for two years. “Barney Frank always used to say that was the only dumb thing I did when I was in Congress, but I’m not sure that’s true,” she joked to the House historian years later.
Even as Schroeder grew in influence, eventually launching a short-lived bid for president in 1987, she faced doubts and research into her behavior: the time she wore a bunny costume to entertain children at the United States Embassy during a 1987 armed forces trip to China. , the fact that she sometimes signed her name with a smiley in the “P.” Some of the biggest scrutiny came when she dropped out of the presidential race and openly cried at the press conference, launching 1,000 thoughts on gender, politics and public standards.
But Schroeder had never shied away from wearing her motherhood or womanhood on her sleeve, until bringing her children — and sometimes a pet rabbit named the Franklin Delano Rabbit — back and forth with her to Denver and on official international trips. . “They would usually spill at least two Cokes and a glass of milk on me before I got off (the floor),” she told the House historian years later. “I was always clingy…People would just be horrified, but that’s how we were.”
This shameless approach to parenthood is less rare today, in many public spheres. But there are still plenty of barriers to women with young children running for office, says Liuba Grecen Shirley, who ran for a New York congressional seat in 2018 with two toddlers at home and then formed the group Vote Mama, which supports young mothers. in politics.
And at the congressional level, at least, the family-friendly policies that Schroeder championed at the height of his influence have largely been frozen in time. While the FMLA was a game-changer 30 years ago, most of its supporters consider it woefully incomplete. As Grecen Shirley and Bravo point out, the law only covers 60% of workers, due to eligibility restrictions. Many eligible people cannot take advantage of it because they cannot afford to take time off. (Bravo notes that state laws mandating paid sick leave are gaining momentum — they’ve now been passed in 11 states and the District of Columbia.)
Grecen Shirley attributes the lack of progress to a lack of representation. The 118th Congress has a record number of women and yet it is still only 153 of the 540 voting and non-voting members, or 28% of the body. But it’s not just that there aren’t enough women in Congress, argues Grecen Shirley, echoing what Schroeder discovered 50 years ago. It’s that there aren’t enough mothers.
“It’s because our policies weren’t made by people who have lived experience. If we want to change the system, we have to change the decision makers in the system,” she says. “So many women will wait until their children are grown before they even consider running, so it’s hard to build that political power to get tenure, to get those leadership positions.”