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Sidebar -- In the Land of Conservative Women, September 1996

A Conversation With Representative
Pat Schroeder

In her article "In the Land of Conservative Women" (September, 1996, Atlantic), Elinor Burkett examines a new phenomenon in this country: the Republican party is attracting more and more women into all levels of government, and these women are eschewing government involvement in "women's issues" in favor of improving "everyone's" lot through lower taxes and a balanced budget. Burkett interviewed Newt Gingrich to find out what the Republican Party has done to help these new Republican women; Gingrich dubbed himself a "head coach" who has helped women reach higher levels in Congress. In contrasting the Republican leadership with the Democratic leadership that preceded it, he cited Representative Pat Schroeder's career as an example of how things used to be, and wondered how it is that she will leave Congress without ever having chaired a committee. We sought out Schroeder's response to this question and to other issues raised by the article, and asked her in particular what strategy the Democrats have to keep women within their party.

Katie Bacon: Newt Gingrich asked Elinor Burkett, "Why does a Pat Schroeder leave here as the senior woman never having been a chair?". What's your response?

Pat Schroeder: It's amazing! For all their talk about children, youth, and families, the Republicans forgot I chaired the Committee on Children, Youth and Families. It tells you what an important part of Gingrich's real life these issues are.

KB: Gingrich also talked about several things he's done to help Republican women rise in the political hierarchy. Do you think that he's done a good job helping women reach higher levels in the House?

PS: No. You don't get to be a star in Gingrich's galaxy unless you're a real team player, so his claiming that he's helped women doesn't make any sense. The one thing that I will never forgive him for is what he did to the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, which I co-chaired. It was a bipartisan group. It was also men and women. We really got a lot of things done: the Women's Health Equity Act, all of our work on breast cancer, the Family Medical Leave Act, and innumerable others. It was the largest bipartisan group in the House, and Gingrich's very first act was to take away its staff and the ability to really make the committee function. The women on his side of the aisle were basically told they were not to participate. With that he pretty much put an arrow through the Caucus as an effective bipartisan group.

I think it's interesting that Gingrich forgot I chaired a full committee and that he pulled the plug on this bipartisan group of women. We were too independent; he couldn't control us and he didn't like that kind of bipartisanship going on. What he says he's done instead is to promote a few women, but they were only promoted if they were team players. Susan Molinari used to be very good on choice, but this year her ratings on choice have dropped like a rock. When we ask her what happened she says, "Well, I'm part of leadership, which means you have to back off on a lot of your views." Gingrich is saying, "Oh, this is great, see, we've got people in leadership who are pro-choice," but when we go to have a vote they're not with us. They say that now that they're part of leadership they can't openly support choice anymore. I am not impressed.

KB: Elinor Burkett talks a lot about how Republicans have built up a successful strategy for attracting Republican women into the leadership of the party -- not just in Congress, but on lower levels as well. Do Democratic women have a strategy for attracting undecided female voters and potential politicians to their party?

PS: Sure. I think women are going to try to be "truth squads" in their own districts wherever possible, saying, "Well, that's the rhetoric but here's the record." Rhetoric is one thing but the record is a much better predictor. I did the "truth squad" thing Monday in Denver. Dole was coming to Colorado Springs, so early that morning we did a "prebuttal" that let everybody know how he voted on Family Leave and on all of the other issues that family groups think are important. We got great press on that. He acts as if he's very pro-family but it just does not fit the record. So we've got to be very clear.

KB: What does the Democratic party offer to women that the Republican party doesn't?

PS: We allow them to be more individual, more independent. You don't have to check all your beliefs at the door. And women have been allowed to be bigger players, not just cheerleaders. I don't want people to think I'm using cheerleader in the wrong context, but the message I think most women get from the Republican party is that they'll let women go out and say how great the party is, but there is always this feeling that the guys had a meeting before the women were invited and decided what the agenda was going to be. That core meeting is the one that Republican women are still not getting invited to. They get to go out and be the window dressing but they're not in that inner sanctum.

KB: There's a point in the article at which a woman in one of these conservative groups says, "There's no such thing as women's issues. Men worry about their family and kids and women worry about the national economy and defense." Is there such a thing as "women's issues"? Does designating them as such diminish their importance in Congress or even in general?

PS: Women are voters and all issues that affect voters are "issues." But the issues related to caregiving, certainly, are issues that women are very directly involved in -- mainly because, despite all the talk, and all the games, caregiving is still 90 percent a woman's job. Whether it's caregiving for small children or caregiving for parents and elderly family members, you will find that in almost every family it's the woman doing it. There really is a large core of issues surrounding caregiving which is very important to women and which our society has never valued properly. And now women are expected to have a job outside the home even though they still have full-time caregiver jobs for which they've been given no additional help. This is one of those things creating strife for America's families and America's women.

KB: Do you see any improvement?

PS: No, I see it going the other way. Women are working more and more to make ends meet, and we all know that if they have small children, they're apt to have day-care crises a couple times a year. If they have elderly parents, they can have all sorts of crises there too. If there are adults in the home who have problems, solving them also ends up being the woman's role. Our tax code still doesn't allow women to deduct those kinds of costs as a business expense even though things like football tickets are deductible. I find it amazing that conservative women keep saying there are no women's issues -- they come from a socioeconomic class that doesn't understand. The average American woman doesn't have a full-time caregiver in the home.

KB: Near the end of the article a Democratic pollster says that the female vote for the November election is still "absolutely up for grabs." Do you think that's true?

PS: Oh, probably. I think our side takes the female vote for granted too much and their side goes out and courts it twenty-four hours a day. I always say beware of wolves in designer clothing. The wolves will get us if we don't have a strategy to take the female vote back.

KB: What do you think your strategy should be?

PS: Part of it is just pointing at the record. Any third grader will tell you that how politicians have been voting is a better predictor than what they say they're going to do in the last few weeks before an election. You've got to go out and keep that focus on the record.

Pat Schroeder is a Congresswoman for the state of Colorado.
Katie Bacon is a new-media editor at The Atlantic Monthly.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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