Unlike so many women whose marriage connection catapulted them to Congress, Coya Knutson’s familial ties brought her promising political career to a premature close. Knutson’s work in the House, devoted largely to protecting the family farm and opening educational opportunities, unraveled after her husband publicly called on her to resign. “I am not a feminist or anything else of that sort,” Knutson once explained. “I do not use my womanhood as a weapon or a tool…. What I want most is to be respected and thought of as a person rather than as a woman in this particular job. I would like to feel that I am respected for my ability, my honesty, my judgment, my imagination, and my vision.”1
Cornelia “Coya” Genevive Gjesdal was born on August 22, 1912, in Edmore, North Dakota, to Christian and Christine (Anderson) Gjesdal, Norwegian immigrant farmers. She attended the public schools of Edmore, worked on her father’s farm, and, in 1934, earned a B.S. degree from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Coya completed postgraduate work at the State Teachers College in Moorhead. In 1935, she briefly attended the Julliard School of Music in New York City. An unsuccessful appearance on a national amateur hour radio show convinced her to abandon a career as a professional singer. For the next dozen years, she taught high school classes in North Dakota and Minnesota. In 1940, Coya Gjesdal married Andy Knutson, her father’s farm hand. The young couple moved to Oklee, Minnesota, his hometown, where they eventually operated a hotel and grain farm. In 1948 the Knutsons adopted an eight–year–old boy, Terry.2
Coya Knutson’s involvement in politics developed through community activism. During World War II, Knutson 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 became a member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor (DFL) Party, created in 1944 when state Democrats, a minority party, merged with a third party composed of agricultural and factory workers. In 1948, Knutson became a member of Red Lake County Welfare Board and was appointed chair of the DFL’s Red Lake County organization. In the fall of 1950, she won election as a DFL candidate to the Minnesota house of representatives. Meanwhile, Andy Knutson resented his wife’s burgeoning political career and lent little support. Moreover, their marriage deteriorated because of his alcoholism.
In 1954, Coya Knutson decided to make a run for the U.S. House, against the wishes of DFL Party leaders, who preferred she remain in the Minnesota legislature. Undeterred, Knutson crisscrossed the northwestern Minnesota district covering most of the Red River Valley, trying to meet as many farmers as possible to discuss agricultural issues and commodity prices. Knutson polled 45 percent to 24 percent against Curtiss Olson, the closest of her four rivals. In the general election, she challenged Republican Harold Hagen, a six–term incumbent. Knutson proved an adept and tireless campaigner, traveling more than 25,000 miles by car to stump in each of the district’s 15 counties, at times delivering a dozen speeches per day.3 The state DFL organization ignored her, and Knutson funded the campaign from her own savings. She favored farm supports and higher price levels for staples such as poultry, eggs, and milk.4 She also attacked President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson for pushing a plan for lower agricultural commodities pricing. She defeated Hagen by a 2,335–vote plurality out of more than 95,500 votes cast, interpreting her triumph as a “protest vote” against the Eisenhower administration’s farm program.5 When Knutson took her seat on January 3, 1955, she became the first Minnesota woman to serve in Congress.
With her background and largely rural constituency, Knutson followed the advice of neighboring Minnesota Representative John Blatnik and immediately wrote to Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas and Majority Leader John McCormack of Massachusetts to express her interest in serving on the Agriculture Committee. Delegate Elizabeth Farrington of Hawaii had just been on the Agriculture Committee as its first woman Member in the previous Congress. But Chairman Harold Cooley of North Carolina, a 22–year veteran of the committee, had no intention of allowing another woman to serve with him. Speaker Rayburn intervened on Knutson’s behalf.6 Less than six months later, Cooley took to the House Floor to explain his newfound respect for Knutson. “Frankly, I would not swap her for one–half dozen men,” Cooley admitted.7
During her tenure on Agriculture, Knutson’s only committee assignment, she fought for a variety of programs to increase the distribution and profitability of farm commodities. She advocated higher price supports for farm products, an extension of the food stamp program into which farm surpluses could be channeled, and a federally supported school lunch program, including free milk for primary school students. Knutson also urged U.S. officials to reinvigorate the international export of foodstuffs, which had slackened between 1951 and 1954.8 “American agriculture cannot prosper if it can only produce the food and fiber needed for the people of the United States. Agriculture must export or die,” she said on the House Floor. One of her more inventive proposed measures would have permitted farmers to place fallow land into a national “conservation acreage reserve” and still be paid rent on the unproductive acreage from federal funds. Knutson argued that this would help replenish the soil, protect it from overuse, and, ultimately, boost future yields.9 As the economy went into recession in 1957–1958, Knutson was a caustic critic of the spending priorities of the Eisenhower White House. “All this talk about ‘conquering outer space’ is just jibberish if Congress and the administration do nothing about conquering the vast inner space in the hearts of young Americans—from the family farm, or whatever their origin—who have lost their jobs,” she said.10 Knutson authored 61 bills during her four years in the House, 24 of which addressed agricultural issues.11
The Minnesota Congresswoman’s greatest legislative triumph, however, came in educational policy. She wrote a measure creating the first mechanisms for a federal student financial aid program. It drew on her experience as a teacher, work in the Minnesota state legislature, and deep desire to find a way for “poor country kids to go to college.”12 Based on government–administered loan programs in Norway, Knutson’s measure, first introduced in 1956, called for federal loans for higher education based on a student’s economic needs. “Educational freedom and progress are most dear to my heart,” Knutson told colleagues on the House Floor. “We can’t take the risk of limiting education to only those who can afford it. As our Nation grows, so should our democracy grow, and our thinking along educational lines should and must grow with it.”13 The legislation received a boost in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man–made object to orbit the earth. Public debate swirled around whether or not the United States had fallen behind the Russians in education and the sciences. Knutson’s bill passed in September 1958 as Title II of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The NDEA established a seven–year, $1 billion loan and grant program. Knutson’s contribution was the creation of a program of loans for needy students. Among its other provisions were graduate fellowship programs for aspiring college instructors (Knutson called it “dollars for scholars”) and a series of grants for college guidance programs, educational television, and the construction of vocational schools.[FOOT 14]
Though popular and unusually effective as a new Member of Congress, Knutson had a tenuous grasp on her seat because of her strained relations with the DFL. Local leaders still resented Knutson’s defeat of their hand– picked candidate in the 1954 primary. In 1956, against the wishes of party leaders, Knutson supported Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee for the Democratic presidential nomination, serving as his Minnesota state co–chair. DFL officials had lined up behind Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, the Democrats’ 1952 nominee. Stevenson eventually won the presidential nomination, but DFL leaders privately fumed at Knutson. Still, in the 1956 primaries, Knutson was unopposed and benefited from public notoriety generated by her tour with Kefauver. Knutson turned back a challenge from Harold Hagen with 53 percent of the vote, a 6,000–vote plurality out of almost 112,000 cast.
Congresswoman Knutson’s political problems mushroomed when angry DFL leaders conspired with Andy Knutson to subvert her political career. As early as 1957, DFL politicians approached her husband for his help in supporting an alternative candidate in the 1958 primaries. Jealous of his wife’s success, broke, and deeply suspicious of her principal legislative aide, Bill Kjeldahl, Andy Knutson threw his support behind local DFL leader Marvin Evenson. At the district convention in May 1958, Coya Knutson’s supporters mounted a frenzied defense and managed to retain the nomination for a third term. Days after the convention, Andy Knutson released a letter to the press (written by DFL officials) which asked his wife not to run for re–election. The Fargo Forum reprinted the letter and coined the phrase, “Coya, Come Home.” The Associated Press picked up the story and sent it over the national wires. Andy Knutson then sent another letter, a press release also drafted by DFL leaders, which publicized the Knutsons’ marital problems. These revelations, along with Andy Knutson’s accusations that Kjeldahl exercised “dictatorial influence on my wife” (hinting at a love affair between Kjeldahl and the Congresswoman) were political dynamite.
Coya Knutson was hamstrung because she believed that public expectations of duty to family prevented her from attacking her husband’s charges frontally. She settled on a policy of refusing to discuss her married life, submerging from public view a long history of physical and mental abuse by her spouse.15 “It has always been my belief that an individual’s family life is a personal matter,” Knutson told the Washington Post.16 House colleagues rallied to her support. The first time she entered the chamber after the story broke, she recalled, “I was so busy shaking hands I had no time for anything else.”17
Representative Knutson survived another challenge from Evenson (who again received Andy’s endorsement) in the September DFL primary, defeating him by more than 4,000 votes.18 But she entered the general election severely compromised and without DFL support. Her opponent was Odin E. Langen, a Minneapolis native and the Republican leader in the state legislature. Pitching himself as a “family man,” Langen brought his wife and son to campaign events, in stark contrast to Andy Knutson’s absence from his wife’s re–election rallies.19 Langen won with a 1,390–vote margin out of slightly more than 94,300 cast. Knutson, the only incumbent Democrat nationwide to be unseated by a Republican in 1958, filed a formal complaint with the Special House Elections Subcommittee, arguing that she had the victim of a “malicious conspiracy” between her husband, DFL opponents, and associates of Langen.20 Coya and Andy Knutson testified before a subcommittee on campaign expenditures, with Andy expressing regret that his wife’s political opponents had “duped” him.21 A majority of the committee agreed that “the exploitation of the family life of Mrs. Knutson was a contributing cause to her defeat.”22 But the committee found no evidence to link Langen directly to the alleged conspiracy and thus ended its investigation.23
Coya Knutson challenged Langen again in 1960, this time with Andy Knutson’s support. She managed to defeat the DFL’s handpicked candidate in the September primary, State Senator Roy Wiseth.24 In the general election, however, she lost to the incumbent, 52 to 48 percent. In June 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Knutson the liaison officer for the Department of Defense in the Office of Civil Defense, where she served from 1961 to 1970. In 1962, the Knutsons were divorced; Andy died in 1969. In 1977, Knutson ran for Congress again but failed to capture the DFL Party nomination in a special election primary. Retiring from the political scene, Knutson lived with her son’s family and helped raise her grandchildren.25 On October 10, 1996, Coya Knutson died at the age of 82.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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