Woman of the century

December 20, 1998|By Richard Reeves

AT A gala at Radio City Music Hall, Time magazine celebrated the end of the 20th century by issuing statistics like these: The man who appeared most often on the magazine's cover, 55 times, was Richard M. Nixon; two women were tied, appearing eight times each, Princess Diana and the Virgin Mary.

Is there more to say?

Well, I wanted to find out more when American Heritage magazine asked me to choose their woman of the century. I began in libraries, and found that the encyclopedias and most of the history books of the American Century were accounts of men's deeds decorated with posed photographs of a stock company of a couple of dozen celebrated women -- particularly Isadora Duncan, Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Fanny Brice, Amelia Earhart, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

There were, too, fuzzier shots of suffragettes and pacifists, Jane Addams and Alice Paul or Margaret Sanger -- usually being arrested for protesting against male order.

I interviewed dozens of women and almost as many men. Almost all picked Eleanor Roosevelt, whose influence came from marriage. Others named most often were Sanger, Betty Friedan and Margaret Mead. Very good cases could be made for Sanger and her crusade for birth control, and for Ms. Friedan, the mother of modern feminism. But in my mind, right or wrong, birth control is more a product of science than social activism. And I concluded that feminism has not come as far as some of us would like to believe.

A farmer's wife

So my choice for the woman of the American century was Cornelia Gjesdal Knutson, a high-school music teacher, farmer's wife and boardinghouse operator from Oklee, Minn., population 495. Well known in those parts as a wedding singer and a government agricultural agent while the men were away during World War II, "Coya" Knutson was elected to Congress as DTC Democrat-Farm-Labor candidate in 1954.

She left for Washington in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, running through the snow for the railroad station with her 14-year-old son. Her husband, Andy, a drunk and a wife beater, had pointed a shotgun at them, saying he would kill them before letting a wife leave his home and hearth.

She did pretty well in the House, earning some influence on the Agricultural Committee, playing a part in the creation of loans for college students, writing legislation for the first research into cystic fibrosis, and introducing the first bill to create a tax checkoff to fund presidential campaigns. But the Capitol was a lonely place for a woman alone. On Sundays, she would eat dinner by herself at National Airport.

Knutson won re-election in 1956, but she had also won some DFL enemies by becoming state chairman for the Democratic presidential primary campaign of Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, rather than working for the founder of the DFL, Hubert H. Humphrey. Vengeance was the party's in 1958 at the DFL nominating convention. Reporters were handed an open letter from Andy Knutson that read:

"I have informed my wife . . . I do not want her to file for re-election to Congress. I expect her to comply with this request . . ."

"I want to have the happy home that we enjoyed for many years prior to her election," said a press release, which added that he thought his wife was irrelevant, that the real decisions were being made by a 25-year-old male assistant with "dictatorial influence on my wife."

People believed that. Of course a man had to be making the decisions. The sexual innuendo seemed ridiculous to people who knew her, but what was a woman doing traveling with a man, any man, who was not her husband?

"Coya, Come Home" was the headline in local papers and then around the country. She lost by 1,390 votes to her Republican opponent, Odin Langen, who was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and used the slogan, "A Big Man for a Man-Sized Job."

After the election, Andy Knutson admitted he did not write the letter. Someone in the DFL had, but he was not exactly sure who that was -- he had been drinking. By then it did not matter. The American voters had spoken, taking the man's side, putting Coya Knutson in her place. A woman's place.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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