In honor of Women’s History Month we’re writing a series of blog posts about famous (and not so famous) women from Minnesota history. Our first post is about political pioneer Coya Knutson.
Coya Knutson, born Cornelia Gjesdahl in 1912 on a farm in Edmore, ND, was the first woman elected to represent the State of Minnesota in the United States House of Representatives.
Knutson graduated with a degree in education from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN in 1934 and left for New York to pursue an education in opera at The Julliard School. She returned to the Midwest when her music career didn’t pan out, teaching high school classes in North Dakota and Minnesota. She married Andy Knutson in 1940 and re-located to Oklee, Minnesota, where she worked as a school teacher and helped her husband run a small hotel.
Knutson, like many other women who have run for elected office, got involved in politics through community activism. According to her House of Representatives biography, she “served as a field agent for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, investigating issues of price support. She helped establish the Oklee Medical Clinic, a local Red Cross branch, and the Community Chest Fund.”
She joined the newly formed Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party in the 1940’s and was appointed chair of the DFL’s Red Lake County organization in 1948. The DFL encouraged her to run for the state legislature; she did so and was elected to serve in the Minnesota House in 1950. After serving two terms she decided that she wanted to run for Congress, despite opposition from DFL party leaders. She self-financed her campaign and traveled the state to talk to voters. She beat the DFL-endorsed candidate in the primary election and then went on to defeat six-term Republican incumbent Harold Hagen in the general election.
Once in Congress, she served on the Agriculture Committee and advocated for policies that helped farmers. She also advocated for funding for cystic fibrosis research and a federal student financial aid program. A bill that she wrote, which helped establish the first federal student loan program, was included in the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) that was passed in 1958.
Days after the district convention in 1958, Knutson’s husband released a letter (believed to have been written by DFLers who held a grudge against Knutson) that called on Knutson to give up her bid for re-election and return home to care for her family. The letter received considerable media attention and it, along with rumors that she was having an affair with an aide, likely helped lead to her defeat in the 1958 election.
In 1961 Knutson was appointed as the liaison officer for the Department of Defense in the Office of Civil Defense, where she served from 1961 to 1970. She divorced her alcoholic, abusive husband in 1962. She attempted to become involved in electoral politics again in 1977 but was unsuccessful.
Knutson died on October 10, 1996 at the age of 82.
Sources: Minnesota Historical Society LibGuide: “Coya Knutson: Groundbreaking Conrgresswoman.” Web address: http://libguides.mnhs.org/knutson
United States House of Representatives History, Art, and Archives. Web address: http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/16457
Halloran, Liz. “The Congresswoman Whose Husband Called Her Home.” May 10, 2014. Web address: http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2014/05/10/310996960/the-congresswoman-whose-husband-called-her-home