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Coya comes back
By Dan Gunderson
Minnesota Public Radio
November 22, 2001
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A new one-woman play, Coya Comes Back, tells the story of the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota. Playwright and actress Kathy Ray says she hopes to educate Minnesotans about the character and courage of Coya Knutson, as well as the disastrous end of her political career.

Actress Kathy Ray portrays Coya Knutson, the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota, in a new play, Coya Comes Back.See a larger image.
(MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)

Over the years, Kathy Ray has portrayed many fictional characters. When she read about the life of Coya Knutson, she realized she had her first real life subject.

"I knew it would be a challenge, because even though Coya has passed away there are still a lot of people alive who remember her," she says.

Kathy Ray traveled through northern Minnesota towns Coya Knutson represented in the 1950s. She says most younger people had never heard of Coya.

"But then I would ask old Norwegian farmers, and often I'd get some surprise answers. 'Oh yeah, Coya. I remember one time I tried to get some FHA money to build a barn on my land, and I couldn't get it. But I just wrote to Coya and the next day that Home Administration guy was out there begging me to take the money.' She had great constituent service," Ray says.

The show is set in a 1950s vintage dining room and living room, with Coya seated at the dining room table. As she cast about for a way to bring Coya to life on stage, Kathy Ray decided to have Coya tell her story to Betty McCollom, who recently became just the second woman elected to represent Minnesota in Congress.

"So anyway Betty, where did you go to college?" asks Coya's character. "St. Catherine's in St. Paul. Catholic, huh. Me? Well, I graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead. 1934. Oh yah, Lutheran."

"The first time I premiered it I was so nervous, I was so scared," Ray says. "Not really having any idea what kind of audience reaction there was going to be. And at the end of the play there was a standing ovation. I just knew that standing ovation wasn't for me, Kathy Ray, the actress. It was for Coya Knutson."

Kathy Ray is still getting comfortable with the character. The show has only been performed a handful of times. It incorporates some old television clips of Knutson, and the disembodied voice of actor Tim Ray helps tell the story.

"Coya Knutson was the first woman to serve on the House Agriculture Committee," he narrates. "She authored the legislation that established the student loan program."

The real Coya Knutson, member of Congress from Minnesota's 9th District in the 1950s. She was defeated for re-election in 1958, after her husband publicized a letter implying that Knutson was ignoring her family in favor of her career.
(Photo courtesy of U.S. Congress)

But in 1956, when Minnesota Democrats threw their support behind Adlai Stevenson for president, Coya Knutson broke ranks and backed Estes Kefauver. She said Kefauver cared more about the farmers who were her constituents. Her independence drew the wrath of party leaders.

When Coya Knutson didn't fall in line with party leaders, the attacks turned personal. Rumors circulated that Knutson was having an affair with her young legislative aide, William Gjeldahl. It was not true, and Knutson denied it, but the criticism persisted.

So began an unseemly political soap opera. At the urging of her own party's leaders, her alcoholic husband Andy wrote what was to become an infamous letter. He distributed it to reporters just before the 1958 district convention in Crookston.

Oklee, Minnesota
April 29, 1958

My dear wife, Coya, I want you to tell the people of the 9th District this Sunday that you are through in politics. That you want to go home and make a home for your husband and son. As your husband I compel you to do this. I'm tired of being torn apart from my family. I'm sick and tired of having you run around with other men all the time and not your husband. I love you, honey.
Your husband, Andy Knutson

The next morning the Fargo Forum headline read, "Coya Come Home," and the story became a national sensation. Knutson lost a close election to Republican Odin Langen.

Kathy Ray says she was struck by how Coya Knutson steadfastly refused to defend herself and explain her troubled marriage.

"She was hounded constantly by newspaper people, but she told them, 'I'm sorry, family problems are a personal matter and I will not address it in the press.'"

"But it was a different time, you know," Coya's character says on stage."Domestic abuse and alcoholism were not discussed in public life then. It was a different time. Oh, the dickens with it. It was my silence that was my downfall. I am responsible."

"One of the strongest motives I have for this is to honor her," Ray says. "I feel a very deep responsibility to Coya Knutson as an actress and playwright. And I feel when I'm performing the play and speaking in her voice, she's there with me. Her spirit," says Ray.

Actress and paywright Kathy Ray plans to perform Coya Comes Back around Minnesota in coming months.

More Information
  • Knutson's Congressional biography
  • Red Lake Falls area history tour Knutson's former home
  • Minnesota Historical Society Collection of women's historical papers and manuscripts
  • Information on women serving in public office