Coya (Cornelia Gjesdal) Knutson (1912-1996)

Coya Knutson is a Concordia alumna who can serve as an inspiration for women across the United States, and especially from the North Dakota/Minnesota area. She was a strong-minded, independent woman in an era when women were often in the background of their own lives. Knutson was an effective member of Congress; however, her career as a U.S. Representative was unfortunately cut short.  She was defeated in her bid for reelection due to inherent sexism in politics at the time, accomplished through actions by her Democratic-Farmer-Labor party colleagues in collaboration her husband.

Coya Knutson was born Cornelia Gjesdal on August 22, 1912 in Edmore, North Dakota to Norwegian immigrants and grew up on a homestead in Ramsey County, North Dakota. 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 freshman 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 City before returning to Minnesota to teach high school English and music, where she later met her husband Andrew “Andy” Knutson. [1]

Knutson taught high school music and English for six years in rural Minnesota in the towns of Penn and Plummer before settling down with her husband on his farm in Oklee. Coping with her husband’s increasing alcohol and gambling problem, Coya resumed teaching high school music and English in order to make ends meet until the Knutsons sold their farm and opened a hotel and café in Oklee. 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. [2]

Although Knutson desired to start a family, she suffered two miscarriages and was unable to conceive thereafter.  She hoped that having a child in her home would ease the tension in her marriage and turned towards adoption.  Her husband, Andy, was against the idea initially, but begrudgingly relented, and Knutson brought home seven-year-old Terrence “Terry” in 1948.  Upon their arrival in Oklee, Andy drunkenly regarded the young boy with an unwelcome statement: “Go back where you came from - we don’t want you around here.”  Although Knutson was disappointed with her husband’s reception of their new son, she promptly accepted that raising Terry would be her own responsibility - one she took on willingly and wholeheartedly. [3]

Also in 1948, Knutson was first elected to local government when she won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives for District 65. She ran for this seat because she desired to represent farmers and institute changes at the local government level. However, after six years in local government, she realized she could do more for her neighbors and fellow farmers at the national level. 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. Once in the U.S. House of Representatives she became close with Sam Rayburn, the Democrat party leader in the House at that time. This relationship landed her a very coveted seat on the House Agriculture Committee, which allowed her direct access to laws and legislation being passed that would affect many of her constituents back home in Minnesota. [4]

Knutson was highly effective in the House, influencing the passage of numerous bills, including twenty-four 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, she was also extraordinary because she was one of the few women involved in national politics. Less than three percent of the 84th Congress, to which Knutson was elected in 1954, was female; there were fourteen women in the House and one in the Senate. [5]

Knutson unfortunately 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 an abusive alcoholic with a gambling addiction that (Coya) Knutson and her then fourteen-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 Coya to come back to the “happy home [they] once enjoyed.”   In this era of rigid gender roles, the letter showing Andy 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.” [6]

Knutson faced considerable sexism in 1950s politics and had a difficult time being taken seriously by her male peers and the media. She was often portrayed in the media in a domestic light instead of as a public figure and businesswoman. Even her opponent in the 1958 election used her gender as a flaw and campaigned on the notion that he was “a big man for a man-sized job.”  The “come home” letter was only another act of sexism focused at Knutson for stepping outside of traditional gender roles.  In response to Knutson losing the election in 1960, a Minneapolis woman wrote to the Star Tribune stating “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.” [7]

After failing to be reelected, Knutson later served as Liaison Officer in the U.S. Department of Defense for the Office of Civil Defense from 1961-1970.  Knutson filed for divorce in 1962; her then ex-husband, Andy, died of acute alcohol poisoning in 1969.  She ran for office one more time in 1977 but was unsuccessful in her bid.  After she retired from her Civil Defense position, she moved in with her son, Terry, and his wife, to help raise their two children.  In 1990 Terry resigned from his teaching position to run for the District 41 Minnesota state senator, with the full support of his mother.  Unlike her experience, Terry had large support from district and state DFL organizations, yet he did not win the election. [8]  

Coya Knutson died on October 10, 1996 from kidney failure, but her influence did not stop then.  In October 1997, Knutson was posthumously bestowed the Alumni Achievement Award from Concordia College.  In the December 1998 issue of American Heritage magazine, writer Richard Reeves chose Coya Knutson to be the “woman of the twentieth century.”  She is remembered today as the first woman elected to U.S. Congress from Minnesota and for her short but incredibly successful career in the U.S. House of Representatives. Knutson is a notable Concordia alumna who went on to do incredible things, including paving a way for future women to hold powerful positions in the U.S. government.

Authors: Amy Crane & Layne Cole

[1] “ND Native Makes her Mark on Congress,” Fargo Forum, September 11, 2005. Knutson, Cornelia “Coya” C. Biography Files Collection; “Alumni History Record,” Knutson, Cornelia, Biography Files Collection, Concordia College Archives.
[2] Gretchen Urnes Beito, “Coya Come Home,” The Sons of Norway Viking, March 1990, 15,  65.
[3] Gretchen Urnes Beito, Coya Come Home, 85, 87, 88-89.
[4] “ND Native,” Concordia College Archives; Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, “Minnesota Legislators Past & Present ‘K’,”, accessed Jun. 22, 2016; Mrs. Coya Knutson to H.C. Noblitt, Apr. 20, 1954, Knutson, Cornelia “Coya”, Biography Files Collection, Concordia College Archives; H.C. Noblitt to Mrs. Coya Knutson, Apr. 23, 1954, Knutson, Cornelia “Coya”, Biography Files Collection, Concordia College Archives.
[5] “ND Native,” Concordia College Archives: Jane Ahlin, “Coya Knutson Saga Seems Quaint Today,” Fargo Forum, October 20, 1996. Knutson, Coya. Biography Files Collection. Concordia College Archives.
[6] Barbara La Valleur, “Secrets Revealed,” Fargo Forum, May 25, 1997, E1;  Coya Knutson, 82, Lawmaker Thwarted by Her Husband,” Knutson, Cornelia “Coya”, Biography Files Collection, Concordia College Archives; Chuck Haga, “Coya Knutson came home,” Star Tribune, Mar. 19, 1990, Knutson, Cornelia “Coya”, Biography Files Collection, Concordia College Archives.
[7] Chuck Haga, “‘Come Home’ Coya dies,” Star Tribune, Oct. 11, 1996, Knutson, Cornelia “Coya”, Biography Files Collection , Concordia College Archives.
[8] “Coya Knutson, 82, Lawmaker Thwarted by Her Husband”; Barbara La Valleur, “Secrets Revealed,” Fargo Forum, May 25, 1997, E2; Coya Come Home, 301; “Minnesota Legislators Past & Present ‘K’,”