North Dakota has a very contradictory history when it comes to women. As the 19th century blended into the 20th, many thousands of women moved here to homestead and wrestle out a living for themselves. Despite their hardiness and proven strength, their road to getting the vote was a rocky one. It was on this day in 1917 that they finally achieved their goal.
Women’s Suffrage almost passed as early as 1872 -- in Dakota Territory -- failing by only one vote. In 1885, Republican Territorial Governor, Gilbert Pierce, vetoed the measure, reasoning that if they allowed women to vote, it might ruin the territory’s chances at statehood.
Four years later, the new state of North Dakota did give women the right to vote on school issues, and in 1892, Independents backed Laura Eisenhuth for Superintendent of Education. Although women were still being held back, they have also had a tendency to make history; Eisenhuth won, making her the first woman in the country to hold statewide elective office.
In 1913, the Women’s Suffrage Act was again passed by the legislature, but this time it was turned down by the state’s all-male voters. Women’s suffrage was closely linked to prohibition. In addition to restricting the use of alcohol, the Christian Temperance Union wanted also to limit child labor, restrict the sale of obscene literature, and separate first offenders from long-term convicts in prisons. Those who were opposed to these notions, especially those who favored the liquor trade, strongly opposed them. Others who were opposed to women’s suffrage included the McKenzie political machine, the railroads, and foreign-born men, particularly the Germans.
Things turned around for pro-active women when the Non-Partisan League gained control. The NPL put women’s suffrage on their platform, and in 1917, the legislature gave women the right to vote in local and presidential elections. Then two years later, they ratified the federal Woman Suffrage amendment, and women were given the right to vote for statewide offices as well.
For the first time, women used their full voting rights on November 2nd, 1920.
Later, North Dakota women made further headlines: just three years after they’d won the vote, two women won seats in the ND State Legislature. One of these, Minnie Craig, ended up serving as a Representative for six consecutive sessions, and in 1933, she made history when she was elected Speaker of the House. It was the first time in national history that a woman served as the head of a legislative body.
The next step in women’s rights began in 1923, with the Equal Rights Amendment. When it finally came up for ratification in North Dakota in 1973, it passed in the Senate but lost by one vote in the House. The following year, it came up for a vote again and passed, making North Dakota the 34th out of 38 states to ratify the ERA. Ultimately, that amendment failed.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm