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Minnesota’s first female member of Congress’ political career was off to a great start — till her husband stepped in

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Coya Knutson
Coya Knutson, a Norwegian American farmer from North Dakota, became Minnesota’s first congresswoman when she was elected in 1954. Though her political career was groundbreaking and packed with important legislation, it was cut short by her husband and political rivals.

Coya Gjesdal Knutson was born in 1912 on a farm near Edmore, North Dakota. The child of Norwegian immigrants, Coya spoke Norwegian at home and prized her family’s Lutheran faith. Farming was also a central part of Knutson’s early life—she drove a tractor by age eleven—and her parents’ involvement with a farmers’ activism group called the Nonpartisan League gave her an early look into the world of politics.

Knutson graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, in 1934 with degrees in English and music. After studying opera at Juilliard for a summer, she decided to return to North Dakota and become a teacher.

Back at home, a slow-moving romance developed between Coya and one of her father’s farmhands, Andy Knutson. The two married in 1940 and bought a hotel in Andy’s hometown of Oklee, Minnesota. Coya managed the hotel’s popular café on top of a full-time teaching career. Later, in 1948, the couple adopted their only son, Terry.

Between teaching positions, Knutson began to dip her toes into the world of politics. She got her start in 1942 when she took an outreach position with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). She then joined the Red Lake County Welfare Board in 1948 and became the county’s Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) chairwoman the same year.

Knutson’s affinity for local politics led her to run for state representative. She won her district in both 1950 and 1952. Kuntson’s platform focused on strengthening the Fair Employment Practice Committee, which fights workplace discrimination, as well as increasing state aid for education. Knutson also sponsored a clean-air bill to limit public smoking and advocated for migrant workers, disabled children, and people struggling with mental illness.

Riding on the success of her two terms as state representative, Knutson focused her sights on a congressional campaign. The summer before the 1954 election, she travelled more than 25,000 miles to address more than 20,000 voters. She often woke at dawn to visit with farmers, and charmed crowds at county fairs and pickle festivals with her accordion and operatic singing voice. When she beat a six-term incumbent to win the election that November, she became Minnesota’s first-ever congresswoman.

Knutson authored sixty-one bills during her two congressional terms (1955–1958). As the first woman appointed to the Agricultural Commission, she learned about farming practices in the Dominican Republic and championed small farmers from her state. She channeled her passion for education into a school lunch assistance program and the first federal student loan bill. Knutson also helped grant one million dollars to the University of Minnesota to fund cystic fibrosis research and introduced bills to support Native Americans from her district.

Yet as Knutson gained momentum as a politician, her home life began to darken. Her husband, Andy, was an abusive alcoholic who resented his wife’s growing success and independence. A rift had also formed between Knutson and Democratic Party officials, who were angered by her support for rural-minded politicians over DFL-endorsed candidates.

Before long, a series of letters signed by Knutson’s husband was published in newspapers nationwide. The “Coya, Come Home” letters, as they were popularly known, publicly ordered Coya to end her political career and return home to Andy. They also wrongfully accused Knutson of having an affair with her campaign manager, Bill Kjeldahl. The letters are believed to have been written by Knutson’s Republican opponents and signed by her husband.

The ensuing national scandal effectively ended Knutson’s political career. She lost the 1958 election by just 1,390 votes to Odin Langen, whose campaign slogan was “A Big Man for a Man-Sized Job.” Though unable to find further success as a politician, Knutson continued to cultivate a successful career. She produced children’s television in New York for a year before moving back to Washington, DC, in 1960. She worked there for ten years in the Civil Defense Office. After retiring in 1972, Knutson moved to Bloomington, Minnesota to live with her son Terry. She died in 1996 at the age of eighty-four.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by richard bonde on 09/18/2018 - 09:52 am.

    Thanks for including this article. Coya was well ahead of her time.

  2. Submitted by Holli Rietmulder on 09/26/2018 - 09:22 am.

    Women have been unmentioned in so much of our history. I am always glad to hear the stories of the women who were the trailblazers.

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