The 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote, was passed in 1919. However, women in North Dakota were already able to vote in city elections under an act passed by the state legislature in 1917. In Bismarck, this created some excitement as citizens geared up the first election that local women could vote in, an election for city commissioner at the end of that year.
One quirk of this ruling was that women had to be sworn in and vouched for. Luckily, any property holder who knew the women appeared to be enough for election officials.
Nonetheless, a few factors kept the local landmark election a small affair. According to the Bismarck Tribune, it had been a singularly quiet election, “following a campaign in which there had been no clear-cut issues and one devoid of excitement," The two candidates were Harry Thompson, a local plumber, and John Larson, who ran a local lumber yard. The two were friendly and had kept the campaign clean.
The election day also dawned nice and cold, with a crispy morning temperature of -20 degrees.
Many voters, men and women alike, did not show to take part. Most of the interest in this election stemmed from the new female voting factor, but the Tribune noted that by 9:00am, not a single woman had voted. By noon, reportedly less than 12 female had cast ballots.
Nonetheless, especially with slightly warming temperatures, more men and women did turn out as the day wore on. Pro-vote women in the city were appalled to find that at least one voting location provided women with a much smaller ballot box than it did for the men. One woman complained, "You'll find before the day is over that you would have done better to switch those boxes right around and give us the larger one."
In the end, only 986 votes were cast; 287 of these from women. According to the Tribune, elections before women were allowed to participate had as many as 1200 citizens turning out, so overall, the numbers for this election were low.
Despite a guess by the Tribune that women might be more likely to vote for Thompson, a plumber, whom they might know better and work with, than Larson, who owned a lumberyard, it turned out that the woman largely voted for Larson. It was not enough to defeat the votes of the men, however, with Thompson ending up the victor.
But the election was also a win for women, and for civility, with Thompson saying "I am particularly pleased with my election because of the caliber of my opponent... John Larson was one of the best men that could have been put up in Bismarck; he has always been a good friend of mine, and I know he will continue to be."
Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker
Bismarck Tribune: December 18, 1917, p.7; December 27, 1917, p1; December 28, p3