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Coya Knutson was a groundbreaking politician, yet the history books never made her a household name in Minnesota.

Knutson became the state’s first U.S. congresswoman in 1955, holding the seat for four years before a scandal disrupted her career trajectory.

As a representative for Minnesota’s Ninth District, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party member was instrumental in starting the federal student financial aid program and advocating for family farms. But Minnesota would not put another woman in Congress until Betty McCollum in 2001.

The fact that Knutson’s name is not synonymous with Minnesota politics troubled Andover resident Sharon Carlson. She turned to Curious Minnesota, our reporting project fueled by questions from readers, to help give people a “refresher.”

Knutson was known for prioritizing the needs of her northern Minnesota community of Oklee, advocating for the installation of electricity in the area and additional support for farmers, including higher prices for agricultural commodities. She served on the U.S. Agriculture Committee, where she advocated for a federal school lunch program and an increased export of American foodstuffs internationally. Knutson authored 61 bills during her time in Congress, of which 24 addressed agriculture issues.

On the campaign trail, she would often be seen playing her accordion, which the Minnesota Historical Society currently has in its possession.

“She was all about helping people,” said Sondra Reierson, Minnesota Historical Society’s 3-D objects curator. “She really ran the gamut ... [and] was very focused on the local community because they were the people who elected her.”

Knutson true allegiance was to her community, which angered those in her political party, Reierson said. No matter what DFL leaders wanted from her, she put her community’s needs first, Reierson added.

This tension made the hold on her congressional seat tenuous. In 1958, Knutson was vying for a third congressional term when the infamous “Coya, come home” letters were published.

DFL leaders approached Knutson’s husband, Andy, and enticed him to write letters to his wife, begging her to recuse herself from political office and return to Minnesota.

The couple was dealing with marital problems and Andy Knutson was an alcoholic who was unhappy with his wife’s success, according to a University of North Dakota dissertation by Gretchen Urnes Beito, who also wrote the book “Coya Come Home: A Congresswoman’s Journey.” Andy Knutson also believed Coya was having an affair with her campaign manager.

“Coya I want you to tell the people of the 9th Dist ... that you are thru in politics,” one of the letters reads. “As your husband, I compel you to do this ... I’m sick and tired having you run around with other men all the time, & not your husband.”

The letters made national headlines. Andy Knutson later testified that DFL leaders drafted the letter’s message, and he merely copied and signed it, according to the UND dissertation. Knutson had won seats over DFL-endorsed candidates in two elections, repeatedly embarrassing party leaders. After the letters were published, the party encouraged the idea that a “woman’s place is in the home,” according to the dissertation.

Coya Knutson never spoke publicly about the letters, and she lost her seat to Republican Odin Langen in 1958. She attempted to challenge Langen for the seat again in 1960 but lost. Coya and Andy Knutson divorced in 1962.

Knutson transitioned away from public life after her defeat and worked in the Office of Civil Defense for almost 10 years. After another failed attempt for the Congressional seat in 1977, Knutson retired from politics. In 1996, she died in Minnesota at age 82.

“She did a lot of varied work and had a lot of varied interests, but I think it was all in the name of helping people,” Reierson said.

Today, there are 127 women in Congress.

Michelle Griffith (michelle.griffith@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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