"Coya" Knutson, the first Minnesota woman to serve in the United States House of Representatives, was born Cornelia Gjesdahl on a farm in Edmore, North Dakota, in 1912. She graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead in 1934 with a degree in education. Soon after graduation she traveled to New York where she studied opera at the Juilliard School of Music. She quickly realized she had little chance of success in a music career and moved back to the Midwest. Eventually she ended up in Oklee, Minnesota, where she married Andy Knutson, taught school, and ran a small hotel with her husband.
By the 1940s she was serving in local offices and in 1949 the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) encouraged Knutson to run for the state legislature. Her love of music and knowledge of the issues that affected the citizens of her district helped Knutson run an unconventional, but popular, campaign. After serving two terms in the state legislature (1950-1953), Knutson ran for representative in Congress. Self-determined and ready to make a difference for farmers at a national level, she ran against the DFL's endorsed candidate. Her personal campaign style and knowledge of farming persuaded Minnesota's Ninth District voters to elect her to Congress, where she served from 1955-1958. Knutson quickly made a name for herself in Washington, where she let it be known that she ran her office, not the Democratic Party.
Shortly after the party district convention in 1958 a widely published news release from her husband, in which he asked her to quit the campaign, hurt Knutson's re-election. Printed in newspapers around the country, the statement portrayed Andy Knutson as a neglected husband and hinted that Coya was having an affair. Despite a public statement from her husband that admitted he had not written the famous letter, Coya was defeated for re-election. The mystery to the origin of the letter has never been solved. Some believe it came from high up the DFL ladder, while others argue local party officials wrote it. Almost everyone agrees now that Andy did not write it.
Coya Knutson died in 1996. Her legacy as Minnesota's first female representative in Congress remains, as does the initiatives she pushed for regarding student loans, cystic fibrosis, and Minnesota farms.
GET STARTED WITH SECONDARY SOURCES:
- Coya Come Home: A Congresswoman's Journey, by Gretchen
Los Angeles: Pomegranate Press, 1990.
MHS call number: Reading Room E748.K75 B45 1990
- The Constituency of Coya Knutson, 1954, by Gretchen
M.A. thesis (University of North Dakota), 1982.
MHS call number: E748.K75 B45 1982
- A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress,
by Hope Chamberlin.
New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973.
MHS call number: JK1030A2 C5 1973
- Take an Active Part in the Work: Minnesota Women in Public Office,
1920-1984 [i.e. 1994], by Mary Christine Pruitt.
Minneapolis: Minneapolis Community College, 1995. MHS call number: HQ1391.M6 P78 1995
- "Women Unite!": The Modern Women's Movement in Minnesota,
by Mary Christine Pruitt.
Ph.D. thesis (University of Minnesota), 1987.
MHS call number: Microfilm 1487(1 reel of microfilm).
Note: Microfilm may be borrowed on Interlibrary Loan.
- Coya Knutson Papers
This archival collection (1952-1980) contains biographical information, congressional subject files and correspondence, copies of bills authored by Knutson, her Congressional Record inserts, correspondence and related materials documenting her campaigns for the Ninth District congressional seat, transcripts of her speeches, press releases, and newsletters. Her alphabetically-arranged congressional subject files (1952-1959) relate to legislation about farm economy, small business, farm loans, student loans, and cystic fibrosis. Political files (1954, 1958) contain correspondence on her election to Congress in 1954 and problems relating to her failed re-election campaign in 1958.
MHS call number: See the green Manuscripts Alpha Notebooks-filed under Knutson, Cornelia Gjesdahl-for a detailed list of boxes (there are 2 boxes of material).
- Arthur O. Reierson Papers
This manuscript collection (1934-1965) contains campaign literature, newspaper clippings, and correspondence regarding Coya Knutson's campaigns of 1956, 1958, and 1960. Arthur O. Reierson was the Polk County DFL chairman and helped organize campaigns in the 65th congressional district of Minnesota.
MHS call number: P757; see the green Manuscripts Notebooks for a detailed list of boxes (there are 6 boxes of material).
- Research Materials on Coya Knutson
This archival collection (1930-1990) contains correspondence, theses, book drafts, and research materials compiled by Gretchen Urnes Beito, a Thief River Falls newspaper writer, for her book Coya Come Home: A Congresswoman's Journey (1990). The papers focus on Knutson's congressional service and are dominated by Beito's files of research notes and related materials compiled for her book. Also included are extracts from letters and printed sources, copies of campaign literature, and newspaper clippings.
MHS call number: P2064; see the green Manuscripts Notebooks for a detailed list of boxes (there are 2 boxes of material).
- Newspapers that may be useful for this topic:
- Crookston Times
- Fargo Forum and Moorhead Daily News
- Minneapolis Star
- Minneapolis Tribune
- St. Paul Pioneer Press
- Thief River Falls Times
- All newspapers from Minnesota's Ninth Congressional District printed Knutson's weekly column, "Coya's Capitol Chat," during her term (1954-58). The column is also available in Knutson's manuscript collection.
- Visual Resources Database subjects that may be useful for this topic:
- Check the library catalog for other materials.