Her two terms (1955-1959) represented a significant step forward for women in politics. At a time when less than 3 percent of Congress was female, Knutson was a strong-minded, independent woman in an era when women were often in the background of their own lives. During her time in Congress, she served as an inspiration for women across the United States and she continues to inspire trailblazers today.

Early Life

Knutson was born Cornelia Gjesdal on Aug. 22, 1912, in Edmore, N.D., to Norwegian immigrants and grew up on a homestead in Ramsey County, N.D. She gained the nickname “Coya” at a young age because she could not pronounce “Cornelia” when she was a toddler.

Gjesdal attended Concordia College where she was active on campus, especially in The Concordia Choir. She joined the choir her freshman year and was one of only four freshmen picked that year to be in The Concordia Choir. She graduated from Concordia in 1934, majoring in English and music with a minor in education. She went on to study opera at Juilliard in New York before returning to Minnesota to teach high school English and music, where she later met her husband, Andrew “Andy” Knutson.

Becoming Politically Involved

After hearing Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1942 call on the radio for women to become more politically involved, Knutson became active in her community and began performing civic duties. She first participated in local politics when she signed on as a field representative for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, a program designed to aid the war effort. Soon she joined the county welfare board and served as a district delegate to the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) convention.

In 1948, Knutson was first elected to local government when she won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives for District 65. In 1954, Knutson returned to Concordia to speak in chapel services and address the political science classes of professor H.C. Noblitt. The chapel service included an announcement that Knutson would be running for Congress. Knutson was elected to the 84th Congress in 1954 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, winning over six-time incumbent Harold Hagen and four other male Democrats, one of which even had the DFL endorsement.

“Democratic Darling”

Knutson was highly effective in the House, influencing the passage of numerous bills, including 24 farm bills, and authoring legislation that created the first student federal loan program. While in Washington, Knutson earned herself the nickname “Democratic Darling,” due in large part to her charisma and charm. Knutson was not only an extremely effective member of Congress, but she was also extraordinary because she was one of the few women involved in national politics. Less than 3 percent of the 84th Congress, to which Knutson was elected in 1954, was female; there were 14 women in the House and one in the Senate.

“Coya, Come Home”

Unfortunately, Knutson lost her seat in the 1958 election after her husband was bribed by some DFL opponents to sign the famous letter “Coya, Come Home” and send it to the local media, where it then went national. Andy Knutson was reportedly an abusive alcoholic with a gambling addiction that Coya Knutson and her then 14-year-old son Terry had escaped when they moved to Washington. They were estranged from him when the letter was released. This letter called for her to come back to the “happy home [they] once enjoyed.”

In this era of rigid gender roles, the letter showing Andy Knutson as a homebound husband longing for his far-away wife raised many questions and grievances among the people of the Ninth District in Minnesota (Knutson’s) and across the nation. She received many letters against her political career and in support of her husband; one from a woman in New Jersey exclaimed: “From the account I read in the paper, you are the typical American career woman. You are a disgrace to womanhood.”

Knutson faced considerable sexism in 1950s politics and had a difficult time being taken seriously by her male peers and the media. In response to Knutson losing the election in 1960, a Minneapolis woman wrote to the Star Tribune: “the whole episode – this sad time for Coya Knutson – shows what a vast, stoney fortress of animosity there is in the world ... against women struggling gamely into public life.”

Adapted from the Concordia College Archives. Authors: Amy Crane and Layne Cole