Knutson, Cornelia Gjesdal, 1912-1996

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Cornelia Genevive Gjesdal "Coya" Knutson (née Gjesdal; August 22, 1912 – October 10, 1996) was an American teacher, farmer, businesswoman, and politician from the U.S. state of Minnesota. She served two terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, from 1951 to 1955, before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota's 9th congressional district as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL). She served two terms there, in the 84th and 85th Congresses, from January 3, 1955 to January 3, 1959.

Born Cornelia Genevive Gjesdal in Edmore, North Dakota, she attended the public schools of Edmore while working on her father’s farm; in 1934 earned a BS from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Coya completed postgraduate work at the State Teachers College in Moorhead. In 1935 she briefly attended the Julliard School of Music in New York City. In 1940, Coya Gjesdal married Andy Knutson, her father’s farm hand. The young couple moved to Oklee, Minnesota, his hometown, where they eventually operated a hotel and grain farm.

During World War II, Knutson served as a field agent for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, investigating issues of price support. She helped establish the Oklee Medical Clinic, a local Red Cross branch, and the Community Chest Fund. She became a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, created in 1944 when state Democrats, a minority party, merged with a third party composed of agricultural and factory workers. In 1948 Knutson became a member of Red Lake County welfare board and was appointed chair of the DFL’s Red Lake County organization. In the fall of 1950, she won election as a DFL candidate to the Minnesota house of representatives, serving two terms there and becoming a passionatre advocate for her rural constituents.

In 1954 Coya Knutson decided to make a run for the U.S. House, against the wishes of DFL Party leaders, who preferred she remain in the Minnesota legislature. Undeterred, Knutson crisscrossed the northwestern Minnesota district covering most of the Red River Valley, trying to meet as many farmers as possible to discuss agricultural issues and commodity prices, easily besting the preferred DFL candidate in an upset, then repeated the feat that fall in the general election as Democrats nationwide returned to majority status in the United States Congress. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn offered her a seat on any committee she wanted as a reward for her surprise success; her choice was the Agriculture Committee, making her its first ever female member.

Though popular and unusually effective as a new Member of Congress, Knutson had a tenuous grasp on her seat because of her strained relations with the DFL. Local leaders still resented Knutson’s defeat of their hand-picked candidate in the 1954 primary. In 1956, against the wishes of party leaders, Knutson supported Senator Carey Estes Kefauver of Tennessee for the Democratic presidential nomination, serving as his Minnesota state co-chair. Ultimately, the DFL approached her estranged husband for his help in supporting an alternative candidate in the 1958 primaries. At the district convention in May 1958, Coya Knutson’s supporters mounted a frenzied defense and managed to retain the nomination for a third term. Days after the convention, Andy Knutson released a letter to the press written by DFL officials which asked his wife not to run for re-election. Though Knutson won the DFL primary in September, the "Coya, Come Home" letter was instrumental in her narrow loss that November.

Knutson would fall short in two subsequent attempts to win House races, in 1960 and 1977. President John F. Kennedy appointed Knutson the liaison officer for the Department of Defense in the Office of Civil Defense, where she served from 1961 to 1970. In 1962 the Knutsons were divorced; Andy died in 1969. Retiring from the political scene following her 1977 bid for the House, Knutson lived with her son’s family and helped raise her grandchildren until her death.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Reierson, Arthur O., 1905-1965. Arthur O. Reierson papers, 1917, 1934-1965. Minnesota Historical Society Library
creatorOf Coya Knutson papers., 1930-1999 (bulk 1954-1958). Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn Bertha S. Adkins Papers. 1928 - 1983. Personal Files, 1928 - 1983 Dwight D. Eisenhower Library
referencedIn Batten, Pluma Burroughs Penton, 1894-. Papers, 1948-1964 (inclusive), 1950-1956 (bulk). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Clara Shirpser Papers. University of California, Berkeley. Library
referencedIn Stickney, Charles William, 1896-1982. Charles William Stickney papers, 1935-1990. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
referencedIn Louis Lerman papers, 1917-1978 (bulk 1955-1974). Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn Friedan, Betty, 1921-2006. Papers, 1933-1985 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Beito, Gretchen Urnes. Research materials on Coya Knutson, 1930-1990. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
referencedIn Papers, 1948 (1950-1956) 1964 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Rayburn, Sam, 1882-1961, Papers, 1822, 1831, 1845, 1903-2007 Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
creatorOf Lerman, Louis Edward, 1894-. Louis E. Lerman papers, 1917-1978 (bulk 1955-1974). Minnesota Historical Society Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Batten, Pluma Burroughs Penton, 1894- person
associatedWith Beito, Gretchen Urnes. person
associatedWith Betty Friedan person
alumnusOrAlumnaOf Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.) corporateBody
associatedWith Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. corporateBody
associatedWith Lerman, Louis Edward, 1894- person
memberOf Minnesota. Legislature. House. corporateBody
alumnusOrAlumnaOf Minnesota State University corporateBody
associatedWith Pluma Burroughs (Penton) Batten, 1894- person
associatedWith Rayburn, Sam, 1882-1961 person
associatedWith Reierson, Arthur O., 1905-1965. person
associatedWith Stickney, Charles William, 1896-1982. person
memberOf United States. Congress. House. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Dept. of Agriculture. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Rural Electrification Administration. corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Small Business Administration. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Moorhead MN US
Oklee MN US
Edina MN US
New York City NY US
Red Lake County MN US
Edmore ND US
Business enterprises
Business enterprises
Political candidates
Political candidates
Cooperative societies
Cooperative societies
Electric power plants
Electric power-plants
Nuclear power plants
Nuclear power plants
Rural electrification
Rural electrification
Agricultural laws and legislation
Agricultural laws and legislation
Agricultural subsidies
Agricultural subsidies
County Government Official
Representatives, U.S. Congress
State Representative
Women legislators


Birth 1912-08-22

Death 1996-10-10






Ark ID: w6sk2b0q

SNAC ID: 85487462