Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Women rarely seek political office and even more rarely achieve the office they seek. Only one woman has been elected to Congress from Minnesota or its adjacent states--Coya Knutson from the rural Ninth District in 1954 and 1956. While legal barriers to women's participation in politics have been abolished, personal and institutional barriers remain. How Coya Knutson overcame these obstacles--and the penalties she paid for doing so--is the subject of this paper.

Coya Gjesdal Knutson grew to maturity on a successful North Dakota farm, where she learned the value of hard work and perseverance. After completing four years at Concordia College, she taught public school music and English, which helped develop skills that she used later as a campaign speaker and musician. Her husband Andy approved of her achievement in the state legislature but became unhappy when she decided to run for the United States House of Representatives

. In order to get on the ballot, she challenged the DFL nominee for the Ninth District in 1954, won, and subsequently defeated six-term Republican incumbent Harold C. Hagen in a stunning election victory. Her ebullient campaign style included visiting farmers at 6 a.m., singing a satirical song about her Republican opponent, and delivering hard-hitting speeches over the radio and through a loudspeaker on a sound truck.

Although she worked very hard for her district in Washington and achieved the legislative landmark of Title II that enabled college students to obtain federal loans after the GI Bill ended, she was defeated in 1958. She had challenged and defeated party candidates in two elections; she had embarrassed Democratic DFL leadership by successfully championing Estes Kefauver in the 1956 Presidential Primary. The subsequent "Coya Come Home" letter, purportedly written by her husband, was sensationalized by television and press news. DFL leaders had manipulated the idea, "woman's place is in the home" to convince voters to not return their congresswoman to Washington, and Republicans quickly used the opportunity given them.

Through letters, news articles and government documents of the Fifties and through personal interviews and articles of the Eighties, this paper demonstrates that a rural woman had an interest in politics and could develop the skills necessary to be a congresswoman. However, since no area women have followed the path blazed by Coya it seems that she was one-of-a-kind, an anomaly. The question remains to what degree cultural and institutional obstacles prevent rural women from even thinking of entering the political arena..

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