Are We Free to Be President Yet? The Legacy of Pat Schroeder and 1970s Feminism

I was born into 1970s feminism. I came into the world in 1972, the year Free to Be You and Me came out. It must have made a big impression on my elementary school teachers, because I saw the filmstrip version of it in school at least three times. I loved it at least as much as my teachers did. I loved the skit in which two babies, played by Marlo Thomas and Mel Brooks, try to figure out which of them is the boy and which is the girl. After much deliberation, they decide that the brave, impatient one who wants to be a firefighter must be the boy. (Of course they’re wrong.) I can still sing along with Rosey Grier’s rendition of “It’s Alright to Cry” in my head. The album’s wonderfully clever songs and skits crystallized my young feminist consciousness. It was such a favorite of mine that when I came across the Free to Be songbook shortly after I had my first child, I bought it to share with my kids. It was heartening to find that as much as I wanted my sons to love what I had loved, they didn’t “get” a lot of the material. (Why wouldn’t it be alright to cry, Mom? And why won’t William’s parents just buy him a doll, for Heaven’s sake?)

1972 was also the year that Pat Schroeder, a young lawyer from Denver, first ran for Congress. It seemed like a long shot. She ran on an anti-war and feminist platform, and did not have the support of her party. Her district was known as a conservative Democrat stronghold. And yet she won. She served while her children were young, and did not hide the diapers in her bag or the crayons in her office. She faced constant criticism of her mothering from colleagues and the public alike. Known for her wit, when asked how she could be a member of Congress and the mother of young children simultaneously, she responded, “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.”

Pat Schroeder with her daughter, who Schroeder brought to work during her first term in Congress in 1973. (Charles Gorry/AP)
Pat Schroeder with her daughter, who Schroeder brought to work during her first term in Congress in 1973. (Charles Gorry/AP)

Schroeder fought for a place on the Armed Services Committee, and then had to literally fight for a seat at the table, since the conservative chairperson, F. Edward Hebert, allocated her and Ron Dellums a single seat, declaring that women and blacks were only worth half a regular committee member. With characteristic humor, she and Dellums shared the seat as if nothing were wrong. Within a couple years, Schroeder and her Democrat colleagues managed to oust Hebert and usher in an era of arms control and moderate defense spending.

Schroeder was equally undeterred when it came to family and women’s issues. She co-founded the Congressional Women’s Caucus in 1977, and helped pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978. She fought constantly for reproductive rights, workplace equity, and support for childcare. Near the end of her House career, in 1993, she would see the fruits of her long-term efforts, with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act.

Gloria Steinem (left) and Pat Schroeder in Denver in 1974. (Duane Howell/The Denver Post)
Gloria Steinem (left) and Pat Schroeder in Denver in 1974. (Duane Howell/The Denver Post)

I was never very politically aware as a young person, but I knew Schroeder. She was the kind of feminist I admired: strong and funny, insisting on a place at the table and getting it through wit and determination. She was regarded by supporters and critics alike as a model of what women’s political participation could mean. She showed how influential a woman could be, and she seemed to have an outsized presence as The Role Model to Show Girls They Can Be Anything. It must have been exhausting for her. I’m exhausted just thinking about the kind of feminists we were supposed to be in the 1980s: plowing our way to the top with spunky humor and determination; wisecracking, not strident, even in the face of ridiculous chauvinism.

In the 1988 presidential race, the last race before I reached voting age, Schroeder briefly threw in her hat as a candidate. She had been supporting Gary Hart until he managed to implode his campaign with a sleazy adultery scandal. She decided to take on the challenge herself, and began fundraising and courting Electoral College members, but in a few months she became disillusioned by the process. She had been elected to the House without relying on party machinery, and she really believed in directly appealing to her electorate. She withdrew from the race, and continued her influential career in the House.

Coverage of Schroeder’s withdrawal from the race focused, to an annoying degree, on the fact that she broke down a bit as she made her speech. I guess it was alright for football hero Rosey Grier to cry, but not Pat Schroeder. She was supposed to be spunky, tough, and wisecracking, never human and emotional. Women weren’t actually free to run for president yet, not really.

Representatives Patricia Schroeder and Shirley Chisholm talking with students at Manual High School around 1982. (Denver Public Library)
Representatives Patricia Schroeder and Shirley Chisholm talking with students at Manual High School around 1982. (Denver Public Library)

I remember the news coverage of the 1992 elections. I heard the teaser on TV: “Women are taking over the House!” Ooh, I thought, really? That’s awesome! I stayed up to watch the full coverage. As it turned out, what the announcer meant by “taking over” was that that the proportion of women in the House had broken 10%, just barely. Pat Schroeder and her colleagues optimistically declared it the “Year of the Woman,” but it wasn’t exactly parity.

Now we have a woman candidate who does know how to run a national campaign, does have the support of her party, and doesn’t cry. She’s not as clever with the wisecracks, but she certainly has fierce determination. She has worked hard on many of the issues dearest to Pat Schroeder’s heart, including workplace equity and reproductive rights. Her path has been made a little easier by feminist trailblazers like Schroeder. Free to Be You and Me is a nostalgic memory, and women have had more than a token presence in Congress for a couple of decades. So is it, finally, true that a girl is free to grow up to be president?

About the Author

One Comment


I remember Free to be Me and have been a Marlo Thomas fan since she starred in That Girl. The show was groundbreaking because her character was a single woman living alone in NYC at a time when most women depicted on TV were either married or trying to be. I remember Pat Schroeder as well. Both were great role models.

Comments are closed.