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The Political Career of Coya Knutson

Women rarely seek political office and even more rarely achieve the office they seek. Only one woman has ever been elected to the U.S. Congress from Minnesota or its adjacent states--Coya Knutson of Oklee in 1954 and 1956.

Cornelia Gjesdal grew on a successful North Dakota farm where she learned the value of hard work and perseverance. After graduating from Concordia and teaching in Penn, North Dakota, and Plummer, Minnesota, she taught music and English in Oklee high School. With her husband, Andy, she operated the eight room hotel and cafe on Main Street. She becames well known in the Oklee area as she sang at club meetings, weddings, and funerals. She directed teh Zion Lutheran Church choir and played the church organ. During World War II, she worked for the AAA as a field woman, and later served on the Red Lake County Welfare Board as well as working on committees to establish the Oklee Medical Clinic, the Red Cross branch and the Community Chest Fund. With this kind of leadership, it was not surprising that the DFL chose Coya to be Red Lake County chairwoman in 1948. Two years later, DFL leaders asked her to run for the state legislature, representing Red Lake, Pennington, and Clearwater Counties. No women had served in the Minnesota House or Senate since 1943, but she and Sally Luther of Minneapolis were elected in 1950/ Coya kept her campaign promises to work for state aid for education and health program and she was re-elected in 1952, receiving the highest number of votes the 65th District had ever given a candidate.

She was assured of re-election in 1954, but she decided to run for U.S. Congress. DFL leaders insisted she stay in the state legislature, so she decided to challenge her party's endorsed candidate in the September primary election. She sang and played at county fairs that summer, and drove with her fourteen year old son Terry through Otter tail County to meet farmers in their fields. She defeated the four other DFL candidates in the primary, receiving nearly twice as many votes as her nearest opponetn, DFL-endorsedCurtiss Olson.

She went on to defeat six-term Republican incumbent Harold Hagen in a stunning upset in the November general election. Both candidates campaigned for parity for farm products and better prices for milk, poultry, and eggs. her ebullient campaign style included singing a satirical song about herRepublican opponent, and delivering hard-hitting speeches over the radio and through a loud speaker on a sound truck.

She worked hard for her district in Washington: she introduced 24 farm bills and won an appointment to the Agriculture Committee. However, few farm bills passed at that time. She was easily re-elected in 1956 over challenger Harold Hagen. She achieved the legislative landmark of Title II that enables college students to obtain federal loans to finance their education.

In March of 1956Cora, along with Robert Short and Hjalmer Peterson, championed the candidacy of Estes kefauver for President in the Minnesota Presidential primary election, the last presidential primary in this state. Coya was Minnesota chairwoman, Hjalmer Peterson, chairman of the Kefauver campaign, even though Hubert Humphrey and other DFL leaders had earlier endorsed Adlai Stevenson. using tactics similar to Coya's congressional campaign, Kefauver won 26 of the 30 elected delegates to the national convention. Angry and embarrassed, DFL leaders challended her at the May 1958 Ninth District Convention in Crookston. She won, and subswquently two letters were released to the press from her husband, Andy, that pleaded, "Coya Come Home." The letter signed by Andy also criticized her legislative assisstant, Bill Kjeldahl. There was a good deal of talk aroun District Nice as well as headlines in newspapers across the nation.

DFL leaders challenged her again in the September primary election and lost. But in the November 1958 general election, Republican Odin Langen defeated Coya 47,863 to 46,473. Red Lake County continued to support her, two to one (1,533 to 735). In fact, the ten northern counties gave her a majority, but the idea that a "woman's place is in the home" had convinced voters in the five more southern counties of Otter Tail, Becker, Clay, Wilkin, and Beltrami not to return their congresswoman to Washington.
Coya called a Congressional Hearing on the campaigning practices in the 1958 election, and Andy brought a suit against Kjeldahl that he afterward recalled, but Coya's political life was over. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1960 and in 1977.

Coya Knutson demonstrated that a rural woman had interest in polotics and that a rural woman could develop the skills necessary to be a congresswoman. Her comment in 1982 was, "I've found that women have to work twice as hard as men to accomplish the same job. They're coming up from behind and they have to catch up." Her advice today is, "Get down to grass roots and find out what people are thinking. One person can make a difference."

By Gretchen Beito

This story submitted on February 20, 2004

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