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Knutson, Coya Gjesdal (1912–1996)

U.S. Democratic congressional representative from Minnesota (1955–59). Born Cornelia Genevive Gjesdal on August 22, 1912, in Edmore, Ramsey County, North Dakota; died on October 10, 1996; one of five children of Christian Gjesdal (a farmer) and Christine (Anderson) Gjesdal; attended public schools in Ed-more; Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, A.B., 1934; postgraduate work in library science at Moorhead State Teachers College, Minnesota, and in music at the Juilliard School of Music, New York City;

married Andrew Knutson (a hotel owner), in 1940 (divorced); children: one son, Terrance.

Known as "the farm woman's Congresswoman," Coya Knutson was the first woman to represent the state of Minnesota in the U.S. Congress, although she did not enter politics until after a successful career in education, public relations, and social welfare. Raised on her family's farm in Edmore, North Dakota, Knutson knew firsthand the hardships of working the land. She liked to regale listeners of the time the grasshoppers stopped by the farm for lunch. "When they took off again," she explained, "our crops went with them." Knutson attended the local public schools and received an A.B. from Concordia College, where she majored in music and English. Following her graduation in 1934, she embarked on a 16-year high school teaching career, while pursuing graduate study in library science and music. Following her marriage in 1940, Knutson worked for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in Minnesota, serving as a field agent investigating issues of price support and acreage allotments for farmers. A developing interest in social welfare led her to a job with the Red Lake County welfare board (1948–50); she also helped establish a local medical clinic, a Red Cross branch, and a community chest fund.

Knutson entered politics in 1948, when she chaired the Red Lake County Democratic-Farmer Labor Party and served as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. In 1950, she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives where she served two terms. In 1954, buoyed by her success on the state level, she ran as Democratic-Farmer Labor candidate from the Ninth District to the U.S. House of Representative, winning over incumbent Harold C. Hagen with a "butter and egg campaign" that encouraged better support of farming families and was critical of the Eisenhower Administration's farm policy. During her freshman year in Congress, Knutson was the first woman to serve on the House Committee on Agriculture. Her tenure was further marked by her call for increased price supports for farm production, an extended food-stamp program for the distribution of farm surpluses, and a federally supported school-lunch program.

Knutson was preparing to campaign for reelection in 1958, when her husband Andrew (reportedly an alcoholic) published what came to be known as the "Coya, Come Home" letter, claiming that his wife's career had devastated their marriage and accusing her of having an affair with a young man who served as her administrative assistant. Although Andrew later maintained that political opponents of his wife had convinced him to write the letter, Coya's credibility had been irreparably damaged, and she lost the election. To no one's surprise, the marriage was dissolved.

Knutson attempted to win back her seat in 1960 but was unsuccessful. Under the Kennedy administration, she served as congressional liaison for the Office of Civilian Defense until 1970, and made yet another unsuccessful bid for a Congressional seat in nomination for a special election in 1977. She then retired to Arlington, Virginia, and died in October 1996.

sources:

Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.

Office of the Historian. Women in Congress 1917–1990. Commission on the Bicentenary of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1991.

suggested reading:

Beito, Gretchen Urnes. Coya Come Home: A Congress-woman's Journey. CA: Pomegranate Press, 1990.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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