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Politics of the Past: Minnesota’s first congresswoman burdened by husband’s spite

Coya Knutson was two months shy of her 30th birthday in June 1942 when she heard Eleanor Roosevelt asking on the radio for women to become more politically active. The speech ignited a social consciousness in the young woman who would become Minnesota’s first female representative in Congress. “It was as if the sun burned into me that day,” she told her biographer, Gretchen Beito. “All of a sudden I had an awareness of something I can’t explain — but the idea of going into politics popped into my head.”

The daughter of a Norwegian immigrant active in the Nonpartisan League, Cornelia “Coya” Gjesdal grew up on a small North Dakota farm, graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and studied opera at the Juilliard School in New York before returning to the Midwest to teach high school music and English. In 1940 she married a shy, simple-minded farmer named Andy Knutson and settled in a wood-frame home in Oklee, Minnesota, lit by kerosene lamps and insulated in the winter by snow banked against the walls.

Inspired by Roosevelt’s speech, Knutson started her political career by calling a meeting of Oklee farmers to discuss bringing electricity to the area. Over the next eight years, she continued to grow her political profile, advocating on behalf of small farmers, and in 1950 she ran successfully for the Minnesota House.

As her career flourished, her marriage foundered. Andy resented his wife’s successes and began working less and less while drinking more and more. The day after Knutson’s second miscarriage, Andy left her to milk the cows while he drank and gambled with friends. He reluctantly agreed to adopt a 7-year-old boy, Terry, but lashed out at the child in a boozy rage, throwing his teddy bear on the floor and barking, “Go back where you came from — we don’t want you around here.”

In 1954, spurred partly by a desire to escape the turmoil of her marriage, Knutson defied DFL Party elders, who refused to endorse her, and waged an independent run for Congress. She was a folksy and tireless campaigner, attracting voters by accompanying herself on the guitar, accordion or piano as she sang songs like “The Happy Wanderer.” Walter Mondale remembered her as being a “sparkling, exuberant, bubbling, happy Scandinavian — heading for the moon.” She upset six-term Republican Harold Hagen, surprising the state’s pundits.

The culture and glamour of Washington suited Knutson. She dined with the Eisenhowers and became the first woman ever appointed to the powerful Agriculture Committee. She dyed her hair blond, worked seven days a week, charmed reporters by sharing her lefse recipe, brought Terry along to galas and called her constituents on their birthdays. Her legislative achievements were significant: She established the federal student loan program and championed family farms, campaign finance reforms and funding for cystic fibrosis research.

Her overshadowed husband’s resentment grew toxic. When Knutson first left for Washington, Andy had brandished a shotgun at her and Terry. “You think you’re leaving, huh?” he’d said, only lowering the weapon when he saw the terror in their eyes. On return trips to Oklee, Andy beat her so violently that she was forced to wear sunglasses to hide her black eyes from colleagues in Congress. Her attempts to place him in an in-patient alcohol abuse center failed but — for reasons of time, money and politics — she declined to pursue a divorce.

In an era of rigidly sexist gender roles, Knutson’s unhinged husband proved a fatal political liability. Convinced (falsely) that she was having an affair with her 29-year-old aide, Andy sabotaged her 1958 re-election campaign by publishing an open letter begging her to quit politics and return to Oklee. “As your husband, I compel you to do this,” he wrote. “I’m sick and tired [of] having you run around with other men all the time. I love you, honey.”

Knutson denied the affair, but newspapers pounced on the juicy “Coya, Come Home” scandal and emphasized her physical appearance; the Minneapolis Tribune described her as “a chubby blonde with twinkling blue eyes.” She won the primary, but narrowly lost the general election to a 6-foot-4 Republican with the preposterous slogan ‘‘A Big Man for a Man-Sized Job.’’

She stayed in Washington after her defeat, divorcing Andy and accepting a job with the Defense Department. For the rest of her life, Knutson resisted speaking out against her husband. “I am not a feminist or anything else of that sort,” she once said. “I do not use my womanhood as a weapon or a tool.”

Were she alive today, her biographer said, Knutson might have taken a personal interest in the outcome of next month’s election. “A woman running for president would have pleased her,” Beito said.


One comment

  1. Read Gretchen Urnes Beito’s biography “Coya Come Home” about this courageous and accomplished woman. The recently updated version to celebrate Knutson’s 100th birthday includes a foreward by Vice President Walter F. Mondale, and reveals the mastermind behind the “Coya Come Home” letter.

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