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Schroeder Escapes The House's Glass Ceiling

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (Nov. 26) -- She has shattered glass ceilings and punctured pompous balloons. Now Rep. Pat Schroeder is breaking out.

After 24 years, the Colorado Democrat figures she's done about as much as she can in Congress.

Her office has a great view, but it's just a view. "It does look different from the inside," she says. "There's a lot of political pollution."

Forget the window. Schroeder's concern is glass ceilings.

"When I first came, people would come up and say, 'Denver made a mistake, right? I mean, you're a fluke, aren't you?'"

That was 1972. And now? There will be about 50 women in the House come January. It's not a fluke.

"I think we're much more comfortable with women as policy makers," Schroeder says. "We're not there yet, but the comfort zone is much wider than it was when I came."

In her office, Schroeder has a caricature of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton looking over her shoulder. She has a corner full of her icons: Hillary, Amelia Earhart (Schroeder was a pilot) and Eleanor Roosevelt.

She doesn't talk to Eleanor Roosevelt by any chance, does she? "No, I don't. Well, I mean, she's here, she's a presence, but we haven't been able to have a conversation."

She'd have to tell Mrs. Roosevelt she's about reached her apex in the House. "I'll never be chairman of the Armed Services Committee," Schroeder says. "I'll never be chairman of the Judiciary Committee." Why not? "I did not come to play get along, go along."

Her barbs are sharp and cutting. "I won't play by the game," she said in her retirement speech. "I guess that's why I'm so dangerous. I can't imagine why else Ollie North would be afraid of me. Yes, I take some delight in that."

Her targets are lofty, and her dislike for House Speaker Newt Gingrich is almost visceral. "He's really brought this new kill-or-be-killed politics to the floor," she says. "It's that combat zone."

But Schroeder has a black belt in verbal combat. She labeled Ronald Reagan the "Teflon president."

"We just couldn't come up with anything that worked, and one morning I was literally frying eggs with a Teflon pan and I thought, 'Aha! I think I know. This guy's got a Teflon coat. No matter what comes at him, it doesn't stick.'"

Democrats are also fair game. Is Bill Clinton a Teflon president? "Oh yes, he's very Teflonish, too," says Schroeder. "I mean, the interesting thing about my hope was that people would say, 'That's right. He is the captain of the ship and the captain of the ship has some responsibility.' They didn't say that. Instead they said, 'How do I get one of those Teflon coats? Where do they sell them?'"

In 1988, Schroeder briefly considered a run at the presidency. She abandoned the idea in tears, saying she could not figure out how to break through, especially the money barrier. Now she has an idea: "If you wrote a check for the equivalent of what every woman spent for their last outfit, we could do it."

Schroeder concedes she has not shaken the political bug. There's a Senate race in Colorado in two years. There's a governor's race. Meanwhile she'll teach a semester at Princeton University.

And she will continue fighting not just sexism, but now -- at 56 -- also ageism. "Oh, listen," Schroeder says. "Ageism's very strong against women in our society. I should bring in to you all the checks I get from people telling me to dye my hair, that I look like the great gray ape of the Congress. And I keep saying, in the ape community, they revere their gray apes."

And in the apes' jungle, there's no glass ceiling.

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