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The Woman Of The Century
You’ve likely never heard of her
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
She had been inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1942 she had heard the President’s wife on the radio—a set powered by a car battery before there was electricity up there—and taken a job in war work as the local agent of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. In 1954, as a Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) candidate in the Ninth District, she was elected to the U.S. Congress by 2,335 votes. “What a campaigner,” said a young political wannabe named Walter Mondale. “She could go into a room and get the dead to wake up.”
“Coya,” as she was called, left for Washington in the middle of the night, running through the snow for the railroad station with her fourteen-year old son, after her husband, Andy, had pointed a shotgun at them, saying he would kill them before letting a wife leave his house. Andy Knutson was a pathetic fellow, a drunk and a wife beater, who would try to get to his wife’s mail before she did, so he could pocket the one- and two-dollar campaign contributions.
She did pretty well in the nation’s House, earning some influence on the Agricultural Committee, playing a part in the creation of loans for college students, writing legislation for the first research into cystic fibrosis after seeing a five-year-old sufferer in her district, and introducing the first bill to create a tax checkoff to fund presidential campaigns. But the Capitol was a lonely place for her. On Sundays she would eat dinner alone at National Airport across the Potomac, where she could watch people coming and going.
Her husband threatened her and her young son with a shotgun when she left to take her seat in Congress.
Knutson won re-election by 5,979 votes in 1956, but she had also won some DFL enemies by becoming state chairman for the Democratic primary campaign of Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, rather than work more quietly for the founder of the DFL, Hubert H. Humphrey. Vengeance was the party’s in 1958 at the DFL nominating convention. Reporters were handed an open letter from Andy Knutson that said: “I have as of this date, May 4, informed my wife, Coya Knutson, a Ninth District Representative in Congress, I do not want her to file for re-election to Congress. . . .”
A second press release later the same day added: ”... our homelife has deteriorated to the extent that it is practically non-existent. ... I want to have the happy home that we enjoyed for many years prior to her election.” Well, that was certainly true. It had been a long time since Andy had earned any money or been sober when it counted. He also wrote that he thought his wife was irrelevant, that the real decisions were being made by a twenty-nine-year-old male assistant with “dictatorial influence on my wife.”
People believed that. Of course a man had to be making the decisions. The sexual innuendo seemed ridiculous to those who knew her, but what was a woman doing traveling with a man, any man, not her husband?
COYA, COME HOME was the headline in local papers and then around the country. She refused to comment on the letter and easily defeated a primary challenge. But in November she lost by 1,390 votes to her Republican opponent, Odin Langen, who was six feet five inches tall and used the slogan “A Big Man for a Big Job.” After the election Andy Knutson admitted he did not write the letters. Someone in the DFL had, but Andy wasn’t sure who; he had been drinking.
Coya Knutson ran again in 1960, with Andy supporting her. She won the primary again but lost in the general election by 5,208 votes. The people had spoken, putting Coya in her place. A woman’s place.
The first woman elected to Congress, before most women had the vote, was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, in 1916. She was defeated in a Senate primary two years later, after being one of fifty-seven representatives who voted against American entry into World War I. Reelected to the House in 1940, she was the only member to vote against declaring war on December 8,1941. What she said after that was true not only of peace but of the pace of women in her century: “You take people as far as they will go, not as far as you would like them to go.”