A Woman to Know: Coya Knutson

What I want most is to be respected and thought of as a person rather than as a woman in this particular job. — Coya Knutson

(image via Smithsonian)


Juilliard graduate, accordion virtuoso, first Minnesota woman elected to Congress, mastermind behind the federal student loan program, champion for cystic fibrosis funding.

But this was 1958, and Coya was a woman in power. When she was running for a third term in 1958, her opponent picked his campaign slogan: "A big job for a big man." And most scandalously, they asked her estranged, abusive husband to put his name on a published letter: "Coya, Come Home."

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 letter did it — Coya lost reelection. She tried again in 1960, and again in 1977. But her political career was over.

"Her story isn't very widely shared, but it should be," says Alex Kopel, who recommended Coya for this newsletter. "I'm a lifelong Minnesotan (even from her part of the state!) and have been involved in Democratic politics since high school, and I didn't learn her story until my senior year of college from my Women in Politics professor — not one of my Democratic party friends or mentors."

Minnesota didn't elect another woman to Congress until 2000.

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**And thank you to Alex Kopel for teaching me so much about Coya! Follow Alex on Twitter here.**

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