In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Columbia Heights resident Koryne Horbal to the United Nations. She traveled to New York to serve as the United States Representative on the Status of Women on the UN’s Economic and Social Council.
“Koryne’s drive came from her father’s teaching,” said Horbal’s close friend, Rosemary Rocco. “He was the baseline for her honor and dignity. Eleanor Roosevelt had been his hero.”
It was only fitting, she added, that Koryne’s desk at the U.N. had belonged to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Horbal, who never held elected office, was a political activist who fought for women’s rights for more than 60 years. She served for nine years as DFL State Co-chairwoman, and co-founded the DFL Feminist Caucus in 1973.
Horbal, 80, died May 15 of congestive heart failure.
A life of activism
Mary Pattock, another activist and long-time friend, said that she (Pattock) had been a Eugene McCarthy supporter. (McCarthy ran for President in1968, on an anti- Vietnam War platform.) “That’s how I got involved in politics. I met Koryne when she was the co-chair of the DFL party. At the time, the way it was set up was that there was a chairman and a chairwoman. They always referred to her as ‘the lovely and talented Koryne.’”
Pattock said that two women, Yvette Oldendorf and Ester Watterberg, got together to write a paper titled, “Women in the DFL: Present but Powerless.”
“It was an expose. Women were doing all the hard work in the party, such as arranging all the fundraisers, but they had no power. Koryne introduced me to Yvette, Jeri Rasmussen and Peggy Specktor. That was 1971. I was 27 years old.
“Koryne brought those ideas to the Democratic National Committee. She became friends with Gloria Steinem, who introduced her to feminism beyond politics. She also met [singer] Judy Collins.”
In the 1980s, Koryne held another job: executive director for the Wonder Woman Foundation. “It was an idea that came out of Warner Brothers,” Pattock said. “They were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Wonder Woman and they wanted a do-good project. The idea was to find women over 40 who had done wonderful things. There were grants given to women.” The 1982 awards ceremony, at which 17 women received $7,500 each, was held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York. Gloria Steinem and Hugh Downs hosted it; award presenters included Judy Collins, actress Jean Stapleton (“All in the Family”), Marlo Thomas, Susan Taylor and Joan Mondale. (UPI Archives, Dec. 3, 1982) Steinem, incidentally, had featured Wonder Woman on Ms Magazine’s premier cover in 1972.
Back home in Minnesota, DFL women were beginning to talk about the word “feminist,” Pattock said. “It was unknown, exotic, radical. We started the DFL Feminist Caucus and elected Koryne as our chair. We were the first feminist caucus within a political party in the nation. We started having workshops in our own homes.
“We attracted like-minded women from all over the state, and we taught them the ropes. Things like, what do you do at a precinct caucus? How do you run for office? What do you do at conventions? That’s how we grew the caucus. We had hundreds of women whom we started grooming for office; we got leaders statewide, people such as Joan Growe, Linda Berglin, Phyllis Kahn. I don’t want to say that we were solely responsible for getting them elected, but certainly we created the environment,” Pattock said.
She added that the changes were taking place back when many women were not in the workforce. They took on issues such as reproductive rights, abused women, employment, gun control, and getting an Equal Rights Amendment passed. “We wrote the first ‘Feminist State of the State’ address. Don Fraser was in Congress at the time, representing the Fifth District. He entered the address into the U.S. Congressional Record. This was around 1974.”
Pattock and Rocco agreed that it was not an easy time for Horbal, who was trying to balance her family life with her political life. She took abuse and criticism from people opposed to the activism, especially toward reproductive rights.
Rocco said, “There certainly were times that were painful. The parish priest of her father’s church issued a condemnation of her from the pulpit. Stan [her father] walked out.” (Koryne had not been present at the service.)
“It took courage,” Pattock said. “They called her ‘Koryne Horrible.’ But what we did in the DFL started to move into other areas. I would say we changed the environment for women. We helped empower them and give them a sense of their own rights. We opened the door to minority voices in the party.
“Koryne was truly brilliant,” Pattock added. “The interesting thing was that she did not have a college education and she was acutely aware of it. I think in the long run it spurred her on. She had an inner confidence that she was just as good, just as smart, as anybody else. It was a subtle challenge throughout her life. She was a brilliant strategist who understood the language of power, and understood how women could position themselves within the party and gain power. Koryne had charisma. She reached out to you and you wanted to go to her. She was a very attractive figure to women and men. She was unafraid and she was bold. Those were the traits that people like me rallied toward.”
Rocco said that in 2002, a group of women in Women’s Studies at Augsburg College reached out to Horbal. “She had been a consultant at the Anne Pedersen Women’s Resource Center. They established the [annual] Koryne Horbal Lecture at Augsburg, and awarded her an honorary doctorate in Human Letters in 2008.” According to Augsburg information, speakers of national prominence address important issues that have an impact on women.” Past speakers have included Steinem, Robin Morgan, Jane Fonda, and Winona LaDuke.
Columbia Heights resident and former District 41 State Senator Barbara Goodwin said she met Horbal in 2000. “She was helpful, optimistic and supportive. I found out that she lived in Columbia Heights, in Innsbruck. She gave me good tips on what I needed to do, and who to contact to help raise money.
“Koryne was always there to help,” Goodwin added. “She was dedicated to getting women into the Legislature and at the federal level. With her, it never came out like advice. When she heard what you were doing, she was more encouraging. She was a great cheerleader. She was just a quiet hero. I was surprised at how few people really knew her, because she was the power underneath a lot of rights that women eventually got in this state. Gloria Steinem visited her in hospice three weeks before she died. I consider Koryne the quiet voice behind the power figures. She was an unsung hero, the wind beneath our wings.”
Horbal was preceded in death by her husband, William Horbal. She is survived by her son Steven Horbal, daughter Lynn Horbal, foster son Chris Holland and grandchildren Marcus, Stephanie, and Bryce Horbal. There will be a memorial honoring her life on June 29, 1 p.m. at Hoversten Chapel at Augsburg College.