1955 to 1958
Cornelia “Coya” Knutson (1912-1996) was the first Minnesota woman to serve in the United States House of Representatives. She served from 1955 to 1958. Her legacy as Minnesota’s first female representative in Congress remains, as does the initiatives she pushed for regarding student loans, cystic fibrosis, and Minnesota farms.*
What a joy to find that this pioneering woman in Minnesota politics had the foresight to compile her own archives. What better evidence of a life exists than the testimony of the one who lived it? Enjoy the summary below left by the Honorable United States Representative Knutson!
“Cornelia Genevive Knutson, or “Coya” as she was commonly known, was born in Edmore, North Dakota, August 23, 1912, the daughter of Christian and Christine (Anderson) Gjesdal. She received a B.S. degree in English and music at Concordia College (Moorhead, Minnesota) and did post-graduate work at Moorhead State Teachers College and at the Julliard School of Music. She began her career as a high school teacher in Oklee, Minnesota, and married Andrew Knutson on March 21, 1940. She served in the state Agricultural Adjustment Administration (1941-1942), as a member of the Red Lake County Board (1948-1950), and as a representative from the 65th district in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1951 to 1954. As a Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate in Minnesota’s ninth congressional district, Knutson defeated Harold Hagen, a twelve year incumbent, to become the first Minnesota woman to be elected to the United States House of Representatives. She held that position from 1955 to 1958. Knutson was defeated in 1958, and campaigned unsuccessfully for the seat in 1960…” **
What so abruptly curtailed the momentum of this bright woman’s political career? It appears that she was the target of a focussed “shame campaign”. Now we go to a sound source on the topic; the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library to clarify the method(s) used to halt this good woman.
“She was the only Democrat in the United States House of Representatives to lose to a Republican in the 1958 election. The upset came after her husband urged her to leave Congress. Headlines around the U.S. featured his plea: “Coya, Come Home.” The Knutson’s were later divorced. (Coya Knutson, New York Times, December 26, 1976)” ***
So, can we defer that this attack on the Honorable Representative Knutson is at least two-pronged: publicly shaming her for pursuing leadership instead of matronly pursuits, and a blatant appeal to pity? While I do not have supporting evidence, the circumstantial evidence makes clear that the rhetoric used against her attacked her as a mother of her adopted son Terry, and as a supportive wife to her husband Andy.
I find the shameful emotional manipulation of her husband especially repugnant. While this case also piles on the sexism of mid-century mid-western values, this type of attack is nothing new. For those who study rhetoric, it is known as an “ad misericordiam” argument defined as: an appeal to pity or compassion. A quick search of the Center for Hellenic Studies-Harvard University reveals numerous cases recorded in Ancient Greek literature. Shall I list a few of the more famous examples? We see ad misericordiam arguments and attacks in: “Apology” (Socrates and Plato), “Wasps” (Aristophanes), and the famed speech of Demosthenes “Against Meidias”. **** all this to establish that the attacks on Coya followed the low bar of rhetoric set over twenty four centuries before her.
What is it about appeals to pity and shame that make such an emotional impact? Dr. Brene Brown has studied shame, vulnerability, and courage for decades. I’ve pulled a few quotes that may crystallize the impacts of shame.
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”
“We judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame.”
“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” *
May I unpack these, statement by statement?
When one is attacked through media, in this case radio and newspaper articles, it is not a two-way debate. How could Coya publicly defend herself while only the reporter holds the microphone or pen? These are the kind of questions that have no answer, and to which there is no expectation of an answer; they are only intended to attack a person and not the problem. To Brown’s second statement, we find a public willing to project their judgment of Rep. Knutson in precisely the same areas they felt the most vulnerable as mothers and husbands. To the last point, I see the insecurities of a husband that loves too little attempting to regain control. Though an adult, he seems to be unable to celebrate her success, or privately, thoughtfully, and constructively convey his objections to her career. Too often, wounded people will choose ego over love, and pride over understanding.
So we move towards You; the Healer of the Universe! You offer us real relationship with the Only Complete personality of all time! You offer us the gift of vulnerability, and are immune to our attempts to emotionally manipulate the Maker of Emotions!
We commend the forerunning of Cornelia Genevive Knutson to You today. We honor her contributions to the benefits to our farmers and those who love the outdoors. We honor her bravery to step outside the schisms in her marriage and the cultural mores of Minnesota to embrace the loneliness of leadership.
In her era, by the Cross of Christ, the Blood of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ, and the Eternal Word of G-d we come to acknowledge our heinous separations and offenses against You. We shamed Coya into compliance instead of Your adventure for her. We wrote or believed written misbeliefs, disbeliefs, unbeliefs, and falsehoods about her and the Knutson family. We not only withhold our approval of her as a human being, but withheld our votes and broke relationship with her through false accusations based on mostly false information. When we judged Coya, where we judged Coya, we have also judged Your confidence and pleasure in her. Will You forgive us?
Conversely, by the Cross of Christ, the Blood of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ, and the Eternal Word of G-d we make these healing declarations over the Knutson lineage, and all Minnesotans present and future. We declare and invite the leadership of women who fear-respect You, and love the law. We declare the doors of shame through media closed over Minnesota’s leadership, and ask that the scales of wisdom and discernment equalize and come into perfect balance. We declare the era of “gotcha politics” over, and invite You to mature us a people willing and able to: agree well, disagree well, love our enemies, seek the benefits of others before ourselves, and remain in relationship in all our present and future political discourse. May we all “Come home” to our Christ who gave the example of selfless service out of a full heart! Amen!
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.…” Hebrews 12:1-2 Berean Study Bible
- P.T.H. cites timeline formerly at this URL: mnhs.org/about/dipity_timeline.htm
The Minnesota Historical Society Web site, http://www.mnhs.org, is fantastic! Check it out! Images are from https://images.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl; again, an amazing resource!
**** Bers, Victor. 2009. Genos Dikanikon: Amateur and Professional Speech in the Courtrooms of Classical Athens. Hellenic Studies Series 33. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. Internet. http://nrs.harvard.eduurn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Bers.Genos_Dikanikon.2009.
Inge, Chrsitie. “The Best Brene Brown Quotes on Shame, Vulnerability, and Courage” Internet. https://christieinge.com/brene-brown-quotes/