MINNESOTA [08/22/18]— Today, Minnesota’s U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar honored the storied life of Minnesota’s first female member Congress, Coya Knutson, with a Senate Resolution heralding her life as a trailblazer who, despite great obstacles when she served in the 1950s, succeeded in making a difference for the families and communities in her state.
You can read a copy of the Resolution here.
The resolution, offered Wednesday on what would have been Knutson’s 106th birthday, notes that after arriving in Washington, D.C in 1954, she convinced Speaker Sam Rayburn to appoint her to be the first woman ever to serve on the House Agriculture Committee, despite the committee chairman’s “grave apprehensions” that a female could not handle the work of the panel.
That Chairman, Harold Cooley of North Carolina, later recanted that sentiment by saying in a speech, “Frankly, I would not swap her for one-half dozen men. Mrs. Knutson has been intensely and constantly interested in the work of the committee, in the welfare of the farmers… She is a brilliant woman,…a statesman in the true sense of the word.” Both Sens. Smith and Klobuchar currently serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The Senators’ Resolution notes that during her two terms in Congress, Knutson was a trailblazer who championed expanded assistance for school lunches, the first-ever federal student loan program, and the first-ever research funding for cystic fibrosis.
Rep. Knutson drew national attention when her husband Andy, whom she later divorced, voiced his opposition to her service in a public letter asking her to return to Minnesota to “make a home for [her] son and husband.” The letter spawned “Coya Come Home” headlines in newspapers around the country and helped defeat her in her bid for a third term in 1958.
Prior to serving in Congress, Knutson was an active member of the Minnesota State legislature, where she sponsored the state’s clean air bill that prohibited smoking in some public places. Earlier she taught school and was well known as an active volunteer who helped establish a medical clinic in Red Lake County in Northwest Minnesota. She was inspired to a life of public service after hearing Eleanor Roosevelt speak about the importance of women being involved.
After retiring from federal service, Knutson returned to Minnesota, where she died in 1996 at age 82.
“Just as Eleanor Roosevelt inspired Coya Knutson to get involved and make a difference in her community, Rep. Knutson’s life is an inspiration for me and my work” said Sen. Smith. “She should also inspire many others to get involved and create needed change. Our resolution honors her life and the difference she made for Minnesota and the entire country.”
“Coya Knutson defeated the odds to become the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota. Even when the party bosses refused to support her—and her own husband wrote a letter to the local paper titled, ‘Coya, Come Home,’ begging her to quit politics—she barnstormed Minnesota’s 9th Congressional District, driving more than 25,000 miles and sometimes delivering a dozen speeches a day and earning her place in Washington,” said Sen. Klobuchar.
Below is the text of Sens. Smith and Klobuchar’s resolution.
Senate Resolution Honoring the life and legacy of Coya Knutson.
Whereas Cornelia Genevive Gjesdal “Coya” Knutson was born on August 22, 1912, in Edmore, North Dakota;
Whereas Coya Gjesdal graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, with majors in English and Music and a minor in Education;
Whereas Coya Gjesdal married Andy Knutson in 1940 and later adopted a son, Terry;
Whereas Coya Knutson was involved in her community, working as a teacher, volunteering, establishing a medical clinic, and serving on the Red Lake County Welfare Board;
Whereas Coya Knutson was elected to the House of Representatives of Minnesota in 1950;
Whereas State Representative Knutson supported health and education initiatives and sponsored the first clean air bill in Minnesota, which prohibited smoking in some public places;
Whereas, in 1954, Coya Knutson won a seat in the House of Representatives of the United States, despite having lost the nomination of her party to a man;
Whereas Coya Knutson became the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota;
Whereas Congresswoman Knutson became the first woman to be appointed to the Committee on Agriculture of the House of Representatives;
Whereas Congresswoman Knutson sponsored legislation that eventually led to expanded school lunch assistance, the first Federal student loan program, and the first appropriations for research on cystic fibrosis;
Whereas Congresswoman Knutson’s husband did not support her career and reportedly wrote a public letter in 1958 ordering her to return to Minnesota to “make a home for [her] son and husband”;
Whereas the story of the letter was taken up by the national press, with newspapers across the United States running the headline “Coya, Come Home”;
Whereas Coya Knutson lost reelection in 1958 to a man whose campaign slogan was “A Big Man for a Man-Sized Job”;
Whereas Coya Knutson eventually divorced her husband, moved permanently to Washington, D.C., and was appointed by President Kennedy to be the liaison officer in the Office of Civil Defense at the Department of Defense, where she served until 1970;
Whereas Coya Knutson retired from politics and moved back to Minnesota to live with her son and his family until her death in 1996 at 82 years of age; and
Whereas Coya Knutson was a trailblazer and an inspiration who was devoted to her community, State, and country: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Senate honors the life and legacy of Coya Knutson, whose dedication to overcoming exceptional odds and devotion to the well-being of the United States shall serve as an inspiration for generations of individuals in the United States.