A century ago today, on June 4, 1919, Congress passed a resolution in support of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would give women the right to vote.
The resolution was sent to the states and ratified in August of 1920. The North Dakota Legislature approved the amendment on Dec. 1, 1919.
The first seeds of the national suffrage movement were planted when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott attended the World Anti Slavery Convention in London, but were denied participation due to their gender, said Teri Finneman, a former reporter for Forum Communications who teaches journalism at the University of Kansas.
The pair then hosted the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. More than 300 people attended.
Dakota Territory and statehood
A women’s suffrage proposal was voted on in the legislature of the Dakota Territory in 1872 and lost by one vote. And again in 1885, Dakota Territory Gov. Gilbert Pierce vetoed a women’s suffrage bill.
North Dakota came very close to being at the forefront of the national suffrage movement with those proposals and others, said Cynthia Prescott, a history professor at UND.
Cora Smith-Eaton, of Grand Forks, was the secretary of the Grand Forks Suffrage Club in 1888. They held their first meeting in the original Grand Forks County Court House, which was a block from the current county court house. This was the first women’s suffrage club in what would become North Dakota.
Smith-Eaton also lobbied the constitutional convention in Bismarck to include women’s rights when writing the first state constitution.
Grand Forks was a leader in getting the women’s suffrage movement started in the state, Prescott said.
The first suffrage convention to be held in North Dakota was held in Grand Forks on Nov. 14-15, 1895.
Prescott said the suffrage movement in North Dakota was very active at statehood, but got bogged down in “ethnic and party politics.”
“Many suffrage workers were also supportive of Prohibition, so North Dakota suffrage gets bogged down in debates about alcohol because people think women more likely to prohibit alcohol,” Prescott said. “There was also an ethinic divide between the Scandianvian immigrants and Germans immigrants from Russia.”
Another prominent local woman in the movement was Kate Selby Wilder, who was from Grand Forks. Wilder married in 1901 and moved to Fargo, but moved back after her husband died in the 1940s.
She served as the secretary of the North Dakota League of Voters, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the state chairman for the Progressive Party.
She was also a founding member of the League of Women Voters in Fargo, which was affiliated with the national movement.
Also in Fargo, Wilder was the first woman in North Dakota to be elected to the city commission and she served as health commissioner.
“People really were interested in suffrage in North Dakota, even though North Dakota was a very young state with a small population,” Prescott said. “People had hardly settled in the state and these women were already organizing.”
A complicated history
One of the reasons it took more than 70 years for women to get the right to vote was because the women leading the suffrage movement were not united, Finneman said.
“Some believed in state's rights and other people believed there needed to be a national policy,” Finneman said.
In the 1880s and 1890s, states in the West started to individually to give women the right to vote. Wyoming Territory was the first to give women the right to vote.
“The West at that time was really trying to show how progressvie they were. They were using it as a draw for people,” Finneman said.
People on the eastern side of the country started to take notice of this and, at the same time, anti-suffrage organizations started forming.
Not all women wanted the right to vote.
“A lot of people want to blame men for holding up women’s right to vote but there were other women arguing they should not be given the right to vote,” Finneman said.
Some reasons the anti-suffrage groups thought women shouldn’t have the right to vote were built on religion, or that women weren’t smart enough, Finneman said.
“And so you start to see the suffrage movement start to lose momentum,” she said.
Meanwhile, in 1868 and 1870, Congress passed the 14th and 15th Amendments, which gave black men the right to vote.
“Women argued they should be included in those amendments, but that didn’t happen,” Finneman said.
Another issue that complicated women getting the right to vote were racial tensions in the country.
“A lot of people see (June 4) as a middle class white woman’s celebration,” Finneman said. “You had people arguing that they couldn't give women the right to vote because then that would also give black women the vote. The 19th amendment didn’t give all women the right to vote.”
There were many local and state policies that kept people of color from voting, Prescott and Finneman said. Native Americans didn’t gain citizenship, and therefore the right to vote, until 1924.
“There were many conditions on the ground that prevented women of color from voting,” Prescott said.
Bev Clayburgh, who is the vice chairwoman of the Republican Party in Grand Forks, said the first time she cast a ballot was in 1948, when incumbent Harry Truman beat Thomas Dewey.
Clayburgh said she voted for Dewey.
“Voting was never even a question in my mind, of course you voted,” Clayburgh said. “I look at it not as a privilege but as an obligation.”
Clayburgh owned and operated a plumbing shop in the 1960s, when she said “women just didn’t do these things.”
“During my era, you quit work when you were having babies and you stayed home and made cookies and raised your kids,” Clayburgh said.
According to the Grand Forks County tax and finance department, there are 34,393 active voters in the county. About 80% of them voted in November 2018, 11,070 of which were females.
“People really take the vote for granted now. They don’t understand that women back in the day were outside picketing the White House. They were marching on Washington,” Finneman said. “Women were arrested, women went to jail, women went on hunger strikes, women were beaten and worse for 72 years.”
Nationally, the proportion of eligible women who reported voting was 63% in the 2016 presidential election, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics. Fifty-nine percent of men reported voting, according to that same data.
“When you see low voting turnout at the polls, it's really discouraging because these people dedicated their whole lives to get this basic right, so people could be considered citizens who had a say in their government,” Finneman said.