In November of 1954, Coya Knutson became the first woman from Minnesota appointed to Congress. The feat was huge — it was considered a stride forward for female politicians and women everywhere in a time when women were seen as more crucial in the house than in the House (of Representatives, that is, where Knutson earned herself a seat).
Knutson was born Cornelia Gjesdal, the daughter of first-generation Norwegian farmers, and her rural North Dakota upbringing allowed her to connect with the public of Minnesota when she ran for Congress in 1954. The fact that this woman — who sang her own slogans and milked cows with farmers while discussing her campaign — was an underdog is a gross understatement. Yet Knutson won, and then she won again in 1956.
However, when she ran for a third term in 1958, many men were fed up with her winning streak, and used her own husband against her in a bid to lose her her seat in the House. It worked. Her opponents penned a letter, signed by her husband Andy, begging Knutson to ditch Washington and come back home where she "belonged." The sentiment, as overtly sexist as it was, rattled the press and the public, and Knutson lost, She never served in Congress again.
Coya Knutson was a political marvel. She managed to unseat a six-term Republican and beat out the endorsed candidate for Minnesota's Democratic party in the primaries, while simultaneously being the first woman elected to Congress from the state. 1954 was Knutson's year — as was 1956, when she won again.
However, when running for her third term, things took a turn and went south in a way neither Knutson nor the public could have predicted. A letter, signed by her husband Andy, was published, and went the 1950s equivalent of viral. The letter begged Coya to "come home," entreating the Congresswoman to quit her position in the House of Representatives to tend to her lonely husband and teenaged, adopted son. The letter turned public opinion against Knutson, who was suddenly seen as a selfish, heartless woman who abandoned her family.
Andy was a violent and reported alcoholic who physically abused his wife. Knutson chose to remain married to him only in name — by 1958, the couple had been living apart for two years, only staying married for financial reasons. The pair divorced in 1962.
However, while her husband was vocally against Knutson's political career, he was happy to have her support him and the small, six-room hotel he owned in their small town of Oklee, Minnesota. According to Knutson, it was when she deigned to suggest he begin supporting himself that he turned on her. She said: “I told him to go out and get a job and that’s when the fur began to fly.”
The dirty secret behind the letter, coined the "Coya, Come Home" letter by the press, is that Andy Knutson almost definitely didn't write it himself, but rather was coerced (probably by alcohol, as he reportedly had a drinking problem) into signing someone else's words. Worse yet, the letter was most likely written by Knutson's Republican opponents, as she had won the 1958 primaries and was a direct threat.
A year after the letter was circulated, a handwriting expert came out with the truth: the letter was penned by someone working directly for her opponent, Odin Langen. It was a brilliant strategy for a devastating and sexist smear campaign.
One of the reasons it was very apparent Andy Knutson did not write the infamous letter was because his marriage was far from the kind to which a wife would ever want to return. Although the press began painting a picture of Andy as a lonely, spurned husband, he was actually an alcoholic wife beater. After Cora began her political career, Andy became irate, refusing to be seen as "Mr. Coya Knutson." Whenever she came home to Minnesota from Washington, he beat her to the point where she had to wear dark sunglasses to hide the bruises.