Mrs. Peterson and the NPL
On today’s date in 1918, Mrs. H.L. Peterson and her family from Bowbells, North Dakota were awaiting the April 1st issue of the “Nonpartisan Leader.” Mrs. Peterson had won a Nonpartisan League women’s writing contest with her essay titled “Pay for the Wageless Years.
“What does the Nonpartisan League mean to me?” she wrote. “It means the renewal of hopes lost during the wageless years I have worked as a farmer’s wife. It means that we will have an administration that will give farm children a better school, and make the farm a place to live as well as to work.
Many know the Nonpartisan League as North Dakota’s experiment with socialism. Some might know that it led to our state-run grain elevator, flour mill, and bank that still serve the state today
At its peak, the NPL boasted 250,000 members across the Midwest and Rocky Mountains. Its platform focused mostly on increasing farmer control over the amount of money they received for their production; but it was also a vehicle for broader political engagement. Prior to the NPL, despite making up a majority of the state’s residents, farmers often felt ignored by those in power.
Before 1918, women were mostly left out of the NPL’s formal structure, but their labor kept farms alive, and they played crucial roles in NPL events. Some women became League organizers, driving from farm to farm to distribute literature and encourage membership. Then, as women’s suffrage gained momentum, it became clear that farm women weren’t just useful – they were also a political force. By 1919, the North Dakota Non-partisan League launched an official Ladies Auxiliary, and other states soon followed suit.
And what did women discuss in these auxiliary meetings? Notes from a meeting in June 1920 stated their intentions:
“We are not going to talk about recipes for rhubarb … or how to remove rust from the stovepipe. . . we want to know about the great battles for human rights so that we can vote straight when the time comes.”
And one of the first building blocks in women’s NPL representation came from a woman in Bowbells, North Dakota with the publication of Mrs. Peterson’s article as she called for “keeping some of the money for which we work” – an article that helped inspire farm women from Nebraska to Colorado to fight for their voice in government.
Dakota Datebook by Leewana Thomas
“Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics,” by Michael J. Lansing.
Library of Congress: “Nonpartisan Leader” April 1, 1918 issue.
State Historical Society of North Dakota, Summary of North Dakota History - Nonpartisan League: http://history.nd.gov/ndhistory/npl.html