In the course of her 24-year House career that began in 1973, Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., used to liken the atmosphere on Capitol Hill to that of “an overaged frat house.” Now it is a frat house hooked up to the Internet. In an interview with National Journal, Schroeder, who lives in Florida, reflected on how little has changed in what is still a predominantly male club. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ What’s your reaction to the Anthony Weiner revelations?
SCHROEDER I want to look for a barf bag. Oh, no, not again! I’m so old, I’ve seen this happen over and over again. You keep thinking, excuse me, haven’t they figured out that they’re not going to get away with that stuff? What drives them to do it? What in the world is going on?
NJ Is there something about men in powerful positions that leads them to this kind of behavior?
SCHROEDER I really don’t know. That would be practicing psychiatry without a license. But you certainly see an awful lot of it. I don’t want to unfairly paint them all with this bad brush. But it is amazing to me, because I know that when I was there, I couldn’t figure out when I was going to launder my nylons, I was so busy. So, when they’ve got time to do all this stuff is way beyond me.
NJ What was the atmosphere like for you as a peer of these men? Do you think it has changed at all?
SCHROEDER It doesn’t sound like it has changed much. I will never forget one afternoon on the floor, a group of congresswomen were all standing around and talking about how we didn’t know this stuff was going on. There was some lobbyist who had this house on the Hill, where there were girls and liquor and all this stuff. The guys would all go there and then just show up for votes. And we were all saying we didn’t even know this was happening. The guys came over and just said, “Well, you’re out of it; you don’t know anything; you don’t understand.”
I remember one man saying to me he never did understand why women were in politics because it was all about Chivas Regal, Lear jets, thousand-dollar bills, and beautiful women. And I thought, “Wow! I guess I came for another reason.” I must say, I’m very proud that the women there, no matter which side of the aisle we’re on, have not been engaging in such things, to my knowledge.
NJ These men aren’t necessarily physical paragons.
SCHROEDER No. And that’s what I really wonder about—the women, why they are attracted to them. One of the things that people used to say to me is that a lot of these guys were real losers in high school, and now that they are in power they find that women are just much more interested in them; they flock to them, and they just go nuts. What goes on in women’s minds to think that these guys are a real bargain?
NJ Does the presence of women in Congress make a difference?
SCHROEDER No, because we’ve never gotten to critical mass. The scholars who have studied it say that women really do make a difference in the culture of an institution when they get to critical mass. They’ll debate what a critical mass is, but there’s absolutely no one advocating that 15 or 16 percent is [enough].
NJ Why aren’t more women in Congress by now?
SCHROEDER The parties have been hesitant to really back women in the past. There isn’t strong mentorship. The mentoring tends to be male-to-male; there’s very little female-to-female.
Women really have to be self-starters. Most women think that if you are qualified and you have done all your homework and everything, somebody will discover you and ask you. That just doesn’t happen in politics. You’ve got to walk out there and say, “Hey, here I am, and I want to go.” Guys still seem to be so much more ready in our culture to do that. I think women still are hesitant to engage in public debate with men and beat them. It’s like, “Oh, my goodness, am I being a lady?”
NJ Weiner has confessed to improprieties. John Edwards has confessed to improper behavior and is fighting charges in North Carolina. Does that taint the Democratic Party?
SCHROEDER No more than [Arnold] Schwarzenegger and all those guys on the other side [taint the GOP]. I don’t think it has anything to do with party politics. I think it has much more to do with gender.
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This article appears in the June 11, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.