Koryne Horbal never set out to become famous, so she was surprised to learn recently that she appears on Wikipedia.
Among the page’s entries: co-founder of Minnesota’s DFL feminist caucus, ambassador for women to the United Nations and recipient of the fourth-highest number of votes for the 1980 presidential election. (She wasn’t running, but collected five votes, nonetheless.)
Long before both major political parties featured female presidential candidates, Horbal was challenging gender roles. She held an executive position for nearly 20 years at the American Contracting Corp. in Minneapolis. A mother shuttling between Columbia Heights and New York City, she made longtime feminist friends, including Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan.
Life has continued to challenge her. Horbal, 78, has had three strokes since 2013. Her husband of 57 years, Bill, died last spring. But she still exudes her trademark quick wit.
“She’s sort of like one of those weighted dolls that you bang down on the floor and it pops back up again,” Morgan said from her home in New York. “No matter how many blows the women’s movement would take from different people at different times — we’d pick up and move on.”
She helped introduce issues — the Equal Rights Amendment, sexual slavery, reproductive choice and workplace equity — still debated before the 2016 presidential election.
A lecture series at Augsburg College in Minneapolis in Horbal’s name has drawn speakers including Steinem, Morgan, actress Jane Fonda and activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke. Augsburg awarded Horbal, who didn’t attend college, an honorary doctorate in humane letters.
“What I learned and loved so much about her besides her incredible record of achievement was her absolute fearlessness when it came to advocating on behalf of women,” said Betty Folliard, a former Minnesota legislator who now hosts the radio program “A Woman’s Place.”
“She’s a woman who says what she means and means what she says.”
When she moved into a senior home recently, Horbal’s friends decorated her apartment overnight and delivered countless meatloaves and soup. Framed certificates from former President Jimmy Carter, who appointed her to the U.N. in 1977, are mounted on her office wall. An aluminum Wonder Woman lunchbox in her kitchen nods to a foundation she headed in New York to celebrate the character’s 40th anniversary in 1982.
Hanging up her apron to speak at global conventions on the East Coast catapulted her outside a woman’s traditional domain.
“When I’d come home and talk about what I was doing in New York,” Horbal said of her political work, “there’d be more interest in why my husband let me do it.”
Horbal grew up on the Iron Range. Her father “didn’t really understand feminism,” she said, but instilled in her a strong work ethic and admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt, who was outspoken on women’s rights.
In high school, she started dating her future husband, a dominant force in high school politics and quarterback of the football team.
“I thought I’d have a better chance at becoming prom queen,” she said, laughing. They married at 21, “and everyone thought we were way too old.”
Unable to afford college, she became active in grass-roots politics. Starting in county positions, she eventually co-founded the feminist caucus for the DFL Party.
“When I got there, I realized how many organized women, at the state or nationally, were being treated as sort of an auxiliary,” she said. “They didn’t get into issues as much as they did volunteering and campaigning for men.”
Horbal recognized that the nature of her work demanded that she meet women from other nations; for instance, sexual slavery was integral in international economic plans. She split her time between the Midwest and East Coast, returning to pack lunches or prepare dinners for her family.
She gained a public status as someone not to be overlooked. A headshot of Horbal accompanied a 1980 front-page article in the Minneapolis Star with the headline, “Abortion politics: DFL ‘pro-lifers’ tell Carter to shape up or lose votes.”
The article reads: “Some members of the group also demanded that Carter fire Koryne Horbal, a longtime DFL feminist leader, from her $48,000 a year job as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Horbal is a strong advocate of the ‘pro-choice’ abortion stance — that a woman should have the right to choose whether she wants to have an abortion.”
Horbal was never one to change her stance just to hop on the party bandwagon. When a male Carter supporter asked her if she wanted to wear a sticker supporting Carter, whose campaign didn’t favor abortion following the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, her response — which contained the phrase “up your” — was censored.
The pond beside Horbal’s senior home reminds her of the lake house where she spent summers with her husband and children. Minnesota is her bedrock.
“Whenever she got a chance, she would haul one of us out [to Minnesota] to do speeches,” Morgan said. “If Koryne called, you had to go.
“To me, Minnesota is Koryne, and vice versa. No matter how global she went, she always kept a Minnesota quality about her. That’s probably what makes her so down-to-earth.”
Horbal has befriended some senior home neighbors. The ninety-something woman across the hall still drives; Horbal doesn’t. She offered Horbal a ride to the store, but left before Horbal could fetch her purse.
As is her style, Horbal took the abandonment in stride. “Anything that takes over 10 minutes,” and her neighbor “doesn’t have time to wait,” she explained.
Horbal wants to visit New York again, watch her grandchildren walk and teach them to say, “I’m a Democrat.” She saw the film “Suffragette” in the fall and was shocked at British women’s plight for the right to vote in the early 20th century. In a violent movement, some women were killed, and many lost jobs or relationships.
“It was so dark,” she said, “and I guess I didn’t realize what the women in England went through before we got involved.”
She hopes women remember how they earned the rights they have today.
“If you don’t understand the history,” Horbal said, “what can you really fight for?”