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Summing Up

The Woman of the Century

June 2024
5min read

You’ve likely never heard of her

Earlier this year, Time magazine celebrated the end of the twentieth century and its own seventy-fifth anniversary together with big parties and statistics. Here are one, or two, of the numbers: The man who appeared most often on the magazine’s cover, fifty-five times, was Richard M. Nixon; two women were tied, appearing eight times each, Princess Diana and the Virgin Mary.

Is there more to say?

Certainly I wanted to find out more. I began in libraries and found that the giant encyclopedias and most of the history books of what Henry Luce, the founder of Time Inc., called the American Century were accounts of men’s deeds decorated with posed photographs from a stock company of a couple of dozen celebrated women—particularly Isadora Duncan, Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Fanny Brice, Amelia Earhart, Mildred (“Babe”) Didrikson Zaharias, Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. There were, too, fuzzier shots of suffragettes and pacifists and reformers like Jane Addams and Alice Paul or Margaret Sanger, usually being arrested for protesting against male order.

The Book of Distinguished American Women by Vincent Wilson, Jr., backed up by an advisory board of women with impressive academic credentials, lists twenty women of the twentieth century, half of them born, raised, and educated in the nineteenth. Duncan, Barrymore, Earhart, and Didrikson are there, along with a jazz singer, Bessie Smith, and two photographers, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Also included was Dr. Alice Hamilton, born in 1869, the pioneer American researcher of the health effects of industrial pollution, listed as the first woman professor at Harvard. True, she taught at Harvard Medical School from 1919 to 1935, but all her male colleagues would give her was a lowly assistant professorship.

I went to Renaissance Weekend, that earnest monument to American self-improvement, to see the Renaissance Women’s Forum “How Heroines Have Changed.” The panelists were successful and articulate, and most said their heroine was “My mother!”

I interviewed dozens of women and almost as many men, asking who was the woman of the American Century. Almost everyone answered, “Eleanor Roosevelt.” When I then asserted that marriage to a powerful man is still the route to female influence, other names came into conversation. Named most often were Sanger, Betty Friedan, and Margaret Mead.

Admirable choices. Very good cases could be made for Sanger and the crusade for birth control and for Friedan, the mother of modern feminism. But in my mind, right or wrong, birth control is more a product of science than social activism. And, as you must or will see, I do not believe that feminism has come as far as some of us would like to believe. (Margaret Thatcher was often named as an extraordinary person, but I would argue that she came to political power only after Great Britain had become an eccentric riding of the United States.)

My own secret choices were two writers of great influence, Ida M. Tarbell and Rachel Carson. Distinguished American Women lists Carson, the author of Silent Spring . No one I talked to, however, mentioned Tarbell, possibly the greatest of American journalists, the muckraking author of The History of the Standard Oil Company , published in McClure’s Magazine between 1902 and 1904. By then she was in her mid-forties—and unmarried. Defenders of Standard Oil’s creator, John D. Rockefeller, tried to dismiss her work as the “spleen” of a “spinster.” But within a few years, in 1911, using Tarbell’s evidence, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the breakup of Standard Oil.

By then Tarbell was considered something of an enemy of the women’s movements of the day. She was an opponent of women’s suffrage—as was Eleanor Roosevelt—arguing that politics, power, and such were against the “true nature” of women. She literally said that a woman’s place was in the home.

Most Americans believed that then and later. In July of 1952 the most famous Catholic priest in the country, Father Fulton J. Sheen, who had his own national television show, wrote this in Look magazine: “‘O Lord I am not worthy.’ This basic humility which looks upon the other as worthy of special consideration, which softens the rigor of law, which inspires that great to be little, is the specific role of woman in civilization.... A man makes cities; a woman makes the home. . . .”

That same year my choice for the Woman of the Century, Cornelia Gjesdal Knutson, a high school music teacher, farmer’s wife, and boardinghouse operator from Oklee, Minnesota, population 495, was running for her second term in the state legislature. She had won a first term in 1950 by sixty-six votes after driving around and around the three-county district, renewing acquaintances with folks she had met when she played the piano and sang at weddings and funerals. She sang and spoke Norwegian, her first language, to the farmers working the hard, windy land along the border with North Dakota.

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.”

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