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Jocelyn Burdick

Jocelyn Burdick was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate from North Dakota, although it was never her plan. Born in Fargo on this date in 1922, her parents named her after her great-grandmother, Matilda Jocelyn Gage, who was a suffragette in the 1870s.

Jocelyn grew up in Fargo and attended high school at Fargo Central. She went on to attend Principia College in Elsaw, Illinois and graduated from Northwestern in 1943. From there, she went on to become a radio announcer in Moorhead, Minnesota.

During her time there, she met Kenneth Peterson of Grand Forks and they married in 1948. They had two children named Birch and Leslie, but Kenneth died in 1958. Two years later, she met and married Quentin Northrop Burdick, an ex-Fargo lawyer with four kids who was now serving in the United States Senate.

Quentin served in the senate for four more terms, where he gained a reputation for voting liberal and funneling federal funding into North Dakota. Jocelyn worked as his advisor and volunteered for his re-election campaigns.

In 1992, Quentin Burdick died of heart failure. At the time, he was the third-longest serving senator. It fell to Governor George Sinner to name Burdick’s replacement. He chose Jocelyn to complete her husband’s work in Washington. Only after consulting relatives did she accept the appointment, and she was sworn in on September 12.

While in office she joined the Public Works Commission, which her husband chaired until his death. She only spoke once on the senate floor in her 3-month term to say, “I am honored to be the first woman to represent North Dakota in Congress. I hope that the 103rd Congress will find many more women seated in this body.” Burdick served until December 14, 1992, when she stepped down and supported Kent Conrad’s run for the seat. She then returned to Fargo where she resides to this day. Only one woman, Heidi Heitkamp, has served in the United States Senate from North Dakota since Burdick’s statement 27 years ago.

Dakota Datebook by Lucid Thomas