December 29, 2011
The 84th Congress (1955-1957) included 16 women—the most ever to serve at one time in Congress. Some were incumbents—well-to-do women like Katherine St. George, a Republican from New York, who was born in England, married a Wall Street broker and ran on a platform of small government and fiscal conservatism to differentiate herself from her cousin, former president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Others rode into Congress on their husbands’ coattails or were widow successors who would serve out their deceased husband’s terms. But then there was Coya Knutson, freshman Democrat from Minnesota. The daughter of Norwegian immigrants, she came out of nowhere to win election by promising to help the struggling farmers of her district. But Knutson had a secret, which she kept even as she was undone by her vindictive husband and the political operatives who used him.
She was born Cornelia Genevive Gjesdal in Edmore, North Dakota, and raised on a small farm. Her father was an active member of the Nonpartisan League, a socialist organization aimed at farmers who sought state control of agriculture to reduce the power and influence of corporate farming. Coya graduated from Concordia College in Minnesota in 1934, then moved to New York City and studied at the Juilliard School, hoping to pursue a career in opera. But after a year, she realized she wasn’t going to succeed in music and returned to Minnesota. In 1940, she married Andy Knutson, who ran a small inn and café in Oklee. The birth of a son, Terry, soon followed. She taught school just across the state line in North Dakota, but in June 1942, she heard a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt. “It was as if the sun burned into me that day,” Knutson recalled, and she became more and more active in civic affairs—particularly on behalf of small farmers.
Years passed, however, as her husband, an alcoholic, turned abusive. Coya Knutson quietly plotted an escape through politics. The Democratic Farmer Labor Party recruited her to run for a seat in the state House of Representatives, and in 1950 she won. But Knutson, seeking a way out of Minnesota, defied the DFL party’s endorsement of a more experienced politician for Congress and launched a run for that seat in 1954.
Without the DFL’s support, Knutson had to run on her own money, so she sold some family land and raised $5,000. She tossed her accordion and her son in her car and took to the road, crisscrossing the 15 counties of the Ninth District by day, visiting farmers and talking politics as they milked their cows. She knew the farming business, and she could relate to their challenges, as small farmers across the country were threatened by the lower prices that corporate farming conglomerates brought to the market. Eventually, she began to draw crowds as she sang, played her accordion and gave her stump speech at county fairs. Her Norwegian accent, operatic voice and bulky squeezebox might have brought curious onlookers close to the stage, but her nuanced calls for fairer prices and her forceful delivery resonated with Minnesota farmers.
Soon, she picked up a campaign manager, a recent college graduate named Bill Kjeldahl, who helped guide her to an upset win over the incumbent Republican. She quickly made her presence known in Washington, running an efficient office and working seven days a week. To assimilate into the local culture, she dyed her hair (she was often described as “the comely blonde” congresswoman) and dressed a bit more fashionably. To stay in touch with her constituents, she telephoned them on their birthdays and anniversaries, and when she had visitors, she posed with them for pictures that were developed instantly so they could be sent to newspapers and published the next day. The Washington Post ran stories on her favorite recipes for making eggs or baking “lefse,” a Norwegian flatbread. More important, House Speaker Sam Rayburn offered her a seat on the Agriculture Committee. In addition to championing small farmers, she wrote the first federal student loan program.
Even as Knutson made new friends in Washington, she further alienated the Democratic Farmer Labor Party by endorsing Estes Kefauver for president in 1956, instead of the DFL-endorsed Adlai Stevenson. Still, despite her independent streak, she was immensely popular with voters back home, and she appeared to be positioned for a long and productive career in Congress.
But her troubled marriage was a political liability waiting to be exposed. Those close to Knutson knew there was a problem; on her return trips to Minnesota, her husband had often beaten her so badly that she wore sunglasses to hide the bruises around her eyes. She’d taken her son to stay with her parents rather than return to her home with Andy. But eventually, people began to whisper that the farm wife turned congresswoman was having an affair with Kjeldahl, the young campaign manager she’d hired as a congressional aide. It didn’t take long for her political rivals to act.
In May, 1958, Coya Knutson was gearing up for her third term. Because of her unwillingness to fall in line with traditional Minnesota politics, the Democratic Party of in her home state would not formally endorse her, so she was forced into a primary—and it was then that a bombshell was released to the press in the form of a letter signed by Andy Knutson.
“Coya, I want you to tell the people of the 9th District this Sunday that you are through in politics. That you want to go home and make a home for your husband and son,” it read. ”As your husband I compel you to do this. I’m tired of being torn apart from my family. I’m sick and tired of having you run around with other men all the time and not your husband.” Andy pleaded with her to return to “the happy home we once enjoyed” and signed off, “I love you, honey.”
Soon, the front pages of newspapers, first in Minnesota, then across the country, bannered headlines of “Coya, Come Home.” Andy Knutson claimed that he was broke and that she “wouldn’t send me any money.” He sued Kjeldahl for $200,000 in damages, alleging that the young aide had “ruthlessly snatched” Coya’s “love and consortium” from a simple middle-aged farmer from Minnesota. Andy further alleged that Kjeldahl had referred to him as an “impotent old alcoholic whose departure from the farm to the nation’s capital would shock society.”
Coya Knutson’s rivals watched in silence; nothing needed to be said. She had a speech ready, a speech that made plain her husband’s alcoholism and abuse, but she and her aides decided that by airing specifics, she would only increase the turmoil. Instead, she simply denied having an affair. “This won’t be any Bing Crosby deal,” she told one reporter, alluding to the crooner’s relationships with much younger women at the time. She later added, “I had personal problems long before I went to Congress.”
Andy Knutson supported his wife’s opponent in the primary—but when she won he had to rethink his position for the general election. “I guess I’m going to vote for my wife,” he told a reporter. “I’m a Democrat, so I can’t vote for [Republican Odin] Langen.” He added, “I’ve got nothing against her. I love her and I want her back.”
Despite a Democratic landslide nationally, Langen (who campaigned on the slogan, “A Big Man for a Man-Sized Job”) defeated Knutson, by fewer than 1,400 votes. That Thanksgiving, a dejected Coya sat down for a meal with her husband and son. Andy quickly dropped the lawsuit against Kjeldahl. He also admitted he did not write the “Coya Come Home” letter, and was simply duped into signing it, but he claimed he could not recall who exactly was behind the plot.
Coya hired a handwriting expert, who determined that the letter had been written by Maurice Nelson, an attorney for Odin Langen. She alleged that a fraud was committed on the voters of Minnesota, but nothing came of it. A few months later, Democratic Chairman James Turgeon admitted to reporters that he had written the letter as a favor to his friend Andy Knutson. Turgeon also added that he knew Coya “was afraid that Andy was going to beat up on her.”
Coya Knutson tried to reclaim her seat two years later, but her career was over, cut short by manufactured charges of adultery and the sexist implication that a woman’s place was in the home. She divorced her husband not long after her failed election bid, and she stayed in Washington to work for the Defense Department. Andy Knutson died of acute alcohol poisoning a few years later. Coya Knutson did not return to Minnesota for the funeral.
Books: Maria Braden, Women Politicians and the Media, Gretchen Urnes Beito, The University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Coya Come Home: A Congresswoman’s Journey, Pomegranate Press, 1990.
Articles: “Coya’s Story,” by Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio, 5/3/2004, http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2004/05/16_gundersond_coya/ “Democratic Women Set Record in Poll,” New York Times, 11/21/54. ”Rep. Knutson is Cooking Authority,” Washington Post, 1/15/55. “Wife in Congress Weighs Call Home,” New York Times, 5/9/58. “Husband’s Plea to Wife: Quit Congress For Home,” Hartford Courant, 5/9/58. “Coya’s Son: Backs Mom’s Career,” Washington Post, 5/9/58. ”Husband’s Appeal to Quit Spurred by Blonde Solon,” Boston Globe, 5/10/58. ”Mrs. Knutoson Sidesteps Mate’s Plea to Quit Congress and Return Home,” Washington Post, 5/9/58. ”Rep. Knutson, as ‘Breadwinner,’ Rejects Husband’s Plea to Quit.” Washington Post, 5/10/58. ”Romance With Young Aide Denied by Mrs. Knutson,” Boston Globe, 5/11/58. ”Husband is Supporting Congresswoman’s Foe,” New York Times, 6/10/58. “Coya Knutson Gets Vote of Unhappy Mate,” Chicago Tribune, 10/21/58. “Coya’s Spouse Asks $200,000,” Chicago Tribune, 11/6/58. “Coya Knows Who Wrote the Letter,” Washington Post, 12/5/58. ”Letter-Writer Says Coya Feared Beating,” Pittsburgh Press, 12/17/58. “Coya Knutson, 82, Husband Sought Her Defeat,” New York Times, 10/12/96.
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