Schroeder sees void in campaign discussion of family issues

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ever since she gave up her run for the presidency, Rep. Patricia Schroeder has noticed a troubling silence on the campaign trail. None of the other candidates, she contends, is saying much about the family. ``The hardest thing for male candidates to get is that issue,'' explains Representative Schroeder (D) of Colorado. ``They still think it's just a nice thing to do, rather than a needed thing. But then if I had a wife, I probably wouldn't understand family issues as intensely as I do.''

Mrs. Schroeder, who sponsored the Family Medical Leave Act in Congress, says she intends to keep them in the forefront of political debate. In January she plans to launch a ``Great American Family Tour'' to help parents encourage lawmakers to focus on child care, parental leave, and male-female pay equity.

Along with Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a pediatrician and professor at Harvard University Medical School, and Gary David Goldberg, executive producer of ``Family Ties,'' Schroeder will kick off the tour in Portsmouth, N.H., Jan. 17. After visiting four cities in the South between Feb. 21 and Feb. 24, the trio will travel to Iowa. Schroeder is financing the tour with funds left over from her campaign.

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Schroeder, in this San Diego suburb recently to address a forum of 450 women state legislators, took time out during an interview to reflect on what she sees as an urgent need for family legislation.

``It's not only the stock market that crashed,'' she explains. ``The American family crashed a long time ago. You do better in America raising thoroughbred racehorses than you do raising children under the tax code.''

Traveling around the country during her exploratory campaign, Schroeder was surprised to find that even college students were worrying about child care and and parental leave.

``These kids have figured out that if they have a family, they're both going to be working and juggling 14 different roles,'' she says.

``They are really agonizing over things we never thought of at that age: `When am I going to have a baby? How am I going to take care of it?' They're really stressed out just thinking about these things in college.

``Everything we used to call women's issues are really family issues. If you're shortchanging women, you're shortchanging everybody.''

In addition, women also find themselves shortchanged politically, Schroeder charges.

``Women all over the country are feeling very shut out of this campaign,'' she says. ``They don't feel it applies to them. If you feel shut out, you say, `Why bother?'''

That feeling of exclusion surfaced here at the Forum for State Legislators, a gathering of 900 politically influential women. Although all presidential candidates were invited, only Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts showed up.

``I'm sure candidates are hearing from their advisers to stay away from women's meetings,'' Schroeder says.

She attributes some of that nervousness to what she describes as ``a certain pain'' left over from 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro shared the Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale.

``After 1984, a lot of people in the party feel they don't want to deal with anything that looks like women's issues, or women,'' she says. ``What they missed is that in 1986, the Democrats wouldn't have taken the Senate back if it hadn't been for the gender gap.'' In that election women voters provided a margin of victory in nine Senate races.

Despite growing political power as voters, women still face formidable challenges as candidates. At the top of the list for all female political contenders is money.

Schroeder's own brief campaign stands as an example. By September she had raised only half of the $2 million she needed. And although she says she had ``wonderful grass-roots support at the $25, $50, and $100 level,'' she counted just 51 contributions of $1,000.

``Money is a nightmare,'' she says. ``The only solution is to start earlier and have it in the bank. I won't borrow.''

Schroeder notes another challenge women candidates face: media coverage. Although her campaign activities around the country included ``many varied things, practically 24 hours a day'' she found that ``the press would focus on the one women's event I did that day. This would alienate males. They would say, `Why don't you want us to help?' I would reply, `I do.' Then they would say, `But all you did was talk to women.'''

Even so, Schroeder has no intention of abandoning her political aspirations. Asked if she hopes to become a candidate for the presidency in 1992, she replies, ``Oh sure. It's not like I've retired and gone off to a spa.'' She even looks back on her campaign as ``a positive thing - we answered a lot of questions, learned a tremendous amount. Hopefully, next time around people won't be so paralyzed by remembering 1984.''

As for other women with political aspirations, she says, ``We've just got to keep working on it. Women must not wait to be asked [to run]. They're never going to be asked, especially for a seat where somebody thinks they can win.

``We have to keep building networks of financial support, political support, issue support. It isn't easy. It's very tough.''

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