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Remembering Pat Schroeder, who spent 12 terms in Congress fighting for women's rights

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

U.S. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, a trailblazer from Colorado who fought for women's rights and family rights, died Monday night from complications of a stroke. She was 82 years old. As Colorado Public Radio's Caitlyn Kim reports, she was remembered for her wit, work ethic and willingness to speak her mind.

CAITLYN KIM, BYLINE: When Democrat Pat Schroeder first ran for Congress in 1972, no one gave her much credence. This is what she told C-SPAN in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT SCHROEDER: It was very frustrating. When I announced for Congress, the newspaper said, "Denver Housewife Runs For Congress." I mean, they didn't even put my name in.

KIM: Schroeder surprised everyone by winning - the first woman Colorado would elect to the House. And then, to prove it wasn't a fluke, she kept on winning, serving 12 terms. When Schroeder was first elected, she was one of 14 women in Congress. She fought for issues like the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and getting women into U.S. military academies. She also fought for women in Congress. Colorado Representative Diana DeGette succeeded Schroeder in office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIANA DEGETTE: We have women who are the chairs of important committees in Congress, and women have voices on every major piece of legislation, not just so-called women's issues, but everything. And that's the legacy that Pat and her generation gave to this whole next generation.

ANITA HILL: There are many voices who are outspoken and important today because she was outspoken.

KIM: That's Anita Hill. She benefited from Schroeder's willingness to stand up and be heard. In 1991, Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Schroeder was one of seven congresswomen to march to the Senate and demand that Thomas' confirmation be delayed so that Hill could be heard. Many of her Colorado peers remember Schroeder for her passion and drive. But former Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who served with Schroeder in the House, highlighted something else.

BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL: One of the things I remember about her was her fantastic sense of humor. She could find something funny in almost anything. And I enjoyed serving with her, and she was a wonderful friend.

KIM: But for all her work on women's rights, Schroeder was accused of setting back the movement when her short-lived bid for the presidency in 1987 ended with a tearful speech. As she told Colorado Public Radio in 2016, there is a different standard for women politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHROEDER: It became - who could lecture me the most on that? And yet men were weeping all the time - I mean, Sununu, the president, President Reagan. So really, it was kind of a different standard.

KIM: After that scalding experience, she kept a file of newsclips of when male politicians cried, noting that none of them were ever accused of setting back men's chances to be taken seriously. And while she kept waiting for a woman to break that last glass ceiling into the presidency, Schroeder didn't live to see it happen in her lifetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHROEDER: I had always hoped, but I really worry I won't now.

KIM: She may not have reached the White House, but as former Colorado Senator Gary Hart put it, Schroeder did leave the U.S. House of Representatives a better place than when she joined it. For NPR News, I'm Caitlyn Kim in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARSHA AMBROSIUS SONG, "FAR AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caitlyn Kim