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Pat Schroeder's commentary
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Former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder during NBC's ''Meet the Press'' March 22, 1998 in Washington, DC. (Getty images)
Former Congresswoman Patricia Scott Schroeder left Congress undefeated in 1996 after serving in the United States House of Representatives for 24 years. Mrs. Schroeder graduated magna cum laude in 1961 from the University of Minnesota (working as an insurance claims adjuster to support herself through college). Mrs. Schroeder went on to Harvard Law School, one of only 15 women in a class of more than 500 men. She earned her J.D. in 1964 and moved to Denver, Colorado with her husband James, who encouraged her to challenge an incumbent Republican for Colorado's First Congressional District seat in 1972. She penned this commentary about Coya Knutson.

St. Paul, Minn. — Congresswoman Coya Knutson's career was a life-changer for me. I was in high school in Des Moines, Iowa, when she was elected. Her election was big news to all of us; there were no congresswomen in the Midwest. There were almost no congresswomen in the whole country. I was so impressed.

She was married, and married women were not supposed to have careers. Unmarried women were channeled into nursing or teaching and not offered other options.

Coya shone like a star. She produced some landmark legislation in higher education and health care. Such trailblazing legislation was rare for freshmen of either gender. For many young women, Coya was a great role model, kicking down doors closed to women and showing great leadership skills. We were so proud. I decided to go to the University of Minnesota because the state was obviously on the cutting edge of change.

When I started in 1958, the Coya Come Home campaign was in full force. I was in total shock when the campaign succeeded and she was defeated. I felt like someone had put my finger in a light socket. What a jolt. This independent, smart, progressive woman with a terrific record was defeated by reverting back to a call for married women to stay home and serve their husbands.

Obviously, as I look back on this experience, it is even more shocking that a progressive state like Minnesota did not elect another woman to Congress until 2000, with the election of wonderful Betty McCollum. Imagine, a gap of 46 years between the election of Coya and the election of Betty!

The lesson for all women is that we are more retro as a society than we would like to believe. We should celebrate pioneers like Coya Knutson because they were brave enough to go out there and demonstrate that women can do the job, and we need to realize that progress is much more evolutionary than revolutionary.

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