As political years go, 1958 went nearly as well for the Democrats as 1980 did for the Republicans. In fact, 1958 was so good that only one incumbent Democrat in the entire Congress -- Rep. Coya Knutson of the ninth district of Minnesota -- lost that November to any Republican. And in Knutson's case, there was a very special circumstance: Andy Knutson of Oklee, Minn. (pop. 495), her unhappy husband.
In pre-election behavior that, in today's idiom, would be characterized as "aggressively unsupportive," Andy Knutson publicly appealed to Rep. Knutson to leave the House and to come home to him and Oklee. Come home, Coya.
Such personal and political tension in a Democratic household did not escape the people at Time and U.S. News and World Report. Mrs. Knutson drew a gentlemanly primary challenger named Evanson who, according to U.S. News, "simply puts his attractice wife and children into a station wagon and drives about the district -- a picture of a family united." Evanson won Andy Knutson's endorsement to go along with the bouquet from the news magazine, but Coya won the primary.
Time, in conscientiously reporting the unpleasantness, seemed to offer itself as a mediator: "Andy said Coya could stay in Congress if only she would get rid of her handsome executive secretary, Bill Kjeldhal, 30. 'The decisions made in Coya's office are not hers but Kjeldhal's.'" Coya Knutson did leave the House, but, as you might have guessed, she did not go home to Andy.
What makes that whole episode still interesting and possibly important is the just-concluded primary election in the fifth congressinal district of Maryland. Maryland's fifth district, barely a 10-minute cab ride from Capitol Hill, has been represented in the House since 1974 by the immensely popular Rep. Gladys Spellman. How other than "immensely popular" can be described a Democrat who wins 80 percent of the vote in a district that had previously been held by a Republican? That's what Gladys Spellman did.
Last Halloween, four days before she would win her fourth term, Gladys Spellman suffered heart failure, which left her unconscious with an unencouraging prognosis for her full recovery. By March, the House declared the congressional seat vacant, and the governor set a special election.
Among the 31 Democratic and Republican candidates on the April 7 primary ballot was Rep. Spellman's husband of 40 years, Reuben Spellman. Mrs. Spellman's message was more personal than philosophical: "My platform is simply . . . that next to Gladys herself, I can best carry out the tremendous mandate she was given. . . ."
Like other candidates who had run to succeed their spouses in public office, Reuben Spellman was not a natural politican. But unlike all those other spouses, Reuben Spellman was the first who was not a wife or a widow. He was the first husband to run to succeed his wife in Congress.
Voters did not seem to think less of this first man who sought to take his wife's place. Reuben Spellman won more votes than all but one of the 30 other candidates running. Unfortunately for Spellman, that one other candidate was also a Democrat who thereby won the primary nomination.
From the ninth district of Minnestoa in 1958 to the fifth district of Maryland in 1981 is a journey of many changes. From Andy Knutson to Reuben Spellman represents significant change in personal attitudes and in public office.
Nowhere is that change more evident that in the numbers compiled by the Center for the American Woman in Politics at Rutgers. In 1971, there were 362 women elected to state legislatures. Every two years, the number of elected women has grown; now, of the 7,482, state legislators, 905 of them are women. That represents 12 percent of the total, up from only 5 percent in 1971. Nobody knows what the percentages were in 1950 when Coya Knutson was first elected to the Minnesota legislature because nobody was keeping track then.
There are now 21 women in Congress, compared with 11 in 1971. But the state legislative numbers are the ones that impress the politicians. State legislatures are the farm system of congressional politics. Just ask Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., who himself was the first Democratic speaker of the Massachusetts legislature.
The day is probably not far off when women candidates will no longer feel obliged to bill themselves by three names, as was the case with Edith Nourse Rogers or Louise Day Hicks, in order to demonstrate a close relationship to some popular male relative. We may even be approaching the time when the nation, like the fifth district of Maryland, has its own Gladys on a first-name basis to go along with a Jimmy or a Teddy.