NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Minnesota Election History Foreshadows Tough Lessons

No Minnesotan would ever be so unhumble as to brag, “As goes Minnesota, goes the nation.” Nor as wrong-headed. After all, if that were even marginally true, the United States would have elected President Walter Mondale in 1984 instead of Ronald Reagan.

But Minnesota has clearly been ahead of the curve in a couple of the least savory trends of the ugliest campaign of modern history.

Eighteen months ago, prescient Minnesotans (like me) warned that America was having its own Jesse Ventura moment. A certain reality TV star was muscling his way to top-of-mind awareness in the field of presidential prospects. Establishment politicos laughed up their sleeves, poo-pooing his blunt, boastful sledgehammer approach … while vastly underestimating how many of their neighbors longed to be led by a crude showman.

Minnesota had already learned this lesson on Nov. 3, 1998, when a retired pro wrestler upended the hopes of two far worthier but less telegenic candidates … becoming our first governor to be elected under a stage name.

But that’s not the only ghostly echo that has rung out, clear as a bell, from the distant, humble North Country. The corrosive sexism and personal attacks aimed at the first woman to run for president were foreshadowed 60 years ago in a phrase that still reeks of prurient motives and dirty tricks:

“Coya, come home.”

I was 7 years old when the dirtiest trick in all of Minnesota political history brought down the state’s first — and for another four decades, its only — female member of Congress. The ugly Icarus-like episode left two indelible marks on little girls growing up in the Red River Valley back in the 1950s: The best and brightest of women could indeed soar to heights that were almost unthinkable back in those aproned, clothes-pinned “Leave It to Beaver” days … but they would have to pay dearly.

Cornelia Gjesdal was born on a farm near Edmore, N.D., in 1912, eight years before American women finally won the right to vote. Always a bright, confident child, the little blonde grew up in a Norwegian-immigrant household with parents who were passionate about the populist Non-Partisan League and its promises of a better life for farmers.

Little Coya, as her “mor” and “far” called her, had big dreams. Musically gifted, she left for the Juilliard School after graduating from Concordia College, intent on a career in opera. But one year in New York — and losing a radio amateur hour contest — let the air out of that balloon. She returned to her home territory, where she taught high school English and music on both sides of the river for the next dozen years. Occasionally, she took the stage at homespun county fairs, accompanying herself on the accordion, to good-hearted applause.

But still, Coya dreamed. She married Andy Knutson in 1940. He was a farmhand who’d worked for her father — pleasant enough in those days. They eventually settled in his hometown of Oklee, Minn., 30 miles due east of Crookston. While he raised grain, she waited tables and cooked meals at his side business, Andy’s Hotel. She also plunged into community life, helping establish the local hospital and Oklee’s first Community Chest.

When Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party came together in 1944, Coya channeled her father’s populist passion into the new party. By 1948, she was chairing the Red Lake County DFL. In 1950, she was elected to the state House of Representatives. But four years later, when she set her sights even higher, the party leaders balked. They had a different kind of candidate in mind.

You might call Coya “irrepressible.” Party leaders had were taken aback by the radical prospect of the audacious 41-year-old woman who eagerly presented herself. Heads were shaken. Hats — men’s hats — were tossed into the ring for the primary.

Undeterred by the guys’ lack of support, the schoolteacher faced down not one but four non-females in the DFL primary. She beat them all. The state party was still unconvinced of the viability of their candidate, but she forged forward on her own. Alone in her old car, buying gas with withdrawals from her savings account, she traversed 15,000 miles in the next two months and visited every county in the district. She buttonholed coffee drinkers in local cafes. She drove into plowed fields and pulled up beside farmers on tractors, talking with practiced ease about the need for higher price supports and other issues near and dear to northwestern Minnesota.

And come November, she won. She soundly beat the six-term Republican incumbent. In January, Coya and her young son left home for Washington — the first Minnesota woman to take a seat in the House.

She fit in well. Educated and increasingly polished (though she never shook off her Norwegian accent and brought her accordion along to D.C.), she impressed the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee so thoroughly that he announced on the floor of the House, “Frankly, I would not swap Mrs. Knutson for one-half dozen men.”

She was re-elected to a second term in 1956 — again, with little support from her party. In a rematch with her predecessor, she received an even larger share of the vote.

But trouble was brewing back home — and not only with her alcoholic and abusive husband, though that too escalated. She seldom returned to Oklee. When she appeared at the Capitol after her infrequent visits, colleagues sometimes noticed she wore dark sunglasses to hide the black eyes Andy had given her.

While he smarted from his wife’s increasing public profile, the party bosses could share his pain. They’d developed no more love during her four years in the U.S. House, despite a string of successes based on her twin passions of agriculture and education — including the National Defense Education Act, which enabled generations of rural kids like me to go to college, and the the school lunch program, drawing down the federal stockpile of commodities.

But she’d inspired a Titanic-sized boatload of ire among the Minnesota DFL leadership. Coya vigorously supported Sen. Estes Kefauver for president in 1958, rather than Minnesota favorite Adlai Stevenson, whom state DFL leaders believed would choose homeboy Hubert H. Humphrey as his vice president. (He didn’t. He tapped Kefauver and went down to defeat.) Never enthusiastic fans, political bosses back home let it be known that Coya Knutson finally had to go.

This is how they’d do it. They approached her troubled husband with a letter penned by one of their strategists. Andy signed and sent it to the Fargo Forum: “Coya, I want you to tell the people of the 9th District this Sunday that you are through in politics. That you want to go home and make a home for your husband and son. As your husband, I compel you to do this. I’m tired of being torn apart from my family. I’m sick and tired of having you run around with other men all the time and not your husband. I love you, honey.”

The Forum’s headline: “Coya, Come Home.”

It was a bombshell. The bogus letter spread like wildfire all across the country. US News and World Report sent a staffer to Oklee to investigate her quaint background. Pontificators thundered that she wasn’t doing right by her family.

Through it all, Coya chose not to air her husband’s dirty linen. With dignity, she told the Washington Post, “It has always been my belief that an individual’s family life is a personal matter.”

That summer, Coya and her supporters — many did stand by her — managed to beat back yet another primary opponent pushed by her party. But in the general election, she came face to face with big Odin Langen, the 6-foot-4-inch Republican who’d go on to serve six terms. His less-than-subtle slogan made his core message very clear — “a big man to do a man-sized job.”

She lost by a narrow margin. Afterwards, she brought a complaint before the Special House Elections Committee, who recognized that she’d been sabotaged. But because they could find no direct link to Langen, they set the matter aside.

Deeply disappointed, the plucky politician and her son stayed on in Washington, appointed by John Kennedy as a liaison officer for civil defense in the Department of Defense. She held the post until 1970, when she retired to Minneapolis.

In 1969, when Andy died of acute alcoholism, she did not go home.

Coya had one final campaign left in her. She ran again for her old House seat in 1977. As usual, her party turned a cold shoulder and nominated a man. Coya soldiered on … but for the first time in her career, she lost the primary.

Early on, Coya Knutson was a champion in our house. My schoolteacher mother and her friends adored her. They took great pleasure in pointing out to their daughters, “See what a woman can do? Reach for the stars.”

Mom had less to say after the vicious smear campaign sullied her heroine’s name. But the lessons and achievements of Minnesota’s first woman in Congress still stand. Though it took more than 40 years to send a second woman to Washington, D.C. — Betty McCollum in 2001 — the Norwegian farmer’s daughter from North Dakota had shattered the perpetual glass ceiling the hard way, achieving much … but paying for that moxie with her dreams.

Little of the ugliness of this 2016 campaign would have surprised Minnesota’s Coya Knutson. She’d be the last to claim that progress ever comes easy … but the first to add, “Pick yourself up and keep on trying.”

3 thoughts on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Minnesota Election History Foreshadows Tough Lessons”

  • Jackie Brodshaug November 9, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    This article was a delightful reminder of our history. Last night reminded us we haven’t moved as far as we had hoped. My brother (in California) calls it the Archie Bunker factor. Thanks, Nancy.

  • Nancy Hanson November 9, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks, Jackie.

  • Karen Tankersley November 9, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    Thanks Nancy for a walk down memory lane. I remember Coya as a role model for young girls, and the “Coya come home” campaign. I grew up 20 miles from Edmore. We knew the back story and were in her side.


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