DICKINSON -- “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The 19th amendment, which guaranteed all American women the right to vote, was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified in 1920. This passage marked the largest expansion of democracy in the history of our country and required a concerted and lengthy effort and decades of agitation and protest to bring it to fruition.
This historic centennial offers an unparalleled opportunity to commemorate a milestone of democracy and to explore its significance to the women of North Dakota today.
While too few of early suffrage leaders lived long enough to see the finish line of ratification, their efforts granted generations of North Dakotans, both men and women alike, with opportunities that would not have been possible without it.
The positive impacts of the 19th amendment extended far beyond giving women the right to vote. According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the law fundamentally changed the fabric of American society — a view echoed by many local women of influence in North Dakota.
“As a professor of business at Dickinson State University, I can say that one of the things that the passage of the 19th amendment impacted greatly was education,” Dr. Debora Dragseth, professor of business administration at Dickinson State University, said. “There was an increase, almost immediately, on social spending and spending on education. There were many, many ripple effects in education that were positive.”
Dragseth, who began teaching at Dickinson State University in 1989, is a tenured professor of business, the former director of Dickinson State University’s Theodore Roosevelt Honors Leadership program and the former chair of the Department of Business and Management. A recipient of the university’s highest faculty award, the Distinguished Teacher of the Year, Dragseth recalls hearing stories from her grandfather about her great-grandmother and the first time she voted.
“My grandfather was about three years old when his family traveled by horse-drawn carriage to the polling station,” Dragseth said. “My great-greatmother told my grandfather that she wanted him to see this, to come and witness this historic moment as she voted for the first time in 1920.”
According to Dragseth, great strides have been made in equality for women since her great-grandmother gained the right to vote in 1920 — but there is certainly more room to grow and improve.
“In North Dakota, if you were to look up the percentages of state legislators that are male and female you would see there is still a disparity. Even our 11 universities have presidents that are male. There’s definitely still work to be done in terms of equality.”
Sarah Trustem, Dickinson Public School’s community relations coordinator and City of Dickinson Councilwoman, spoke highly of the women who paved the way and shared a poignant quote by Susan B. Anthony.
"We shall some day be heeded, and when we shall have our amendment to the Constitution of the United States, everybody will think it was always so, just exactly as many young people believe that all the privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possesses always were hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past." — Susan B. Anthony
“When I interned in D.C., I wrote this quote down while in the National Archives. It has always stuck with me,” Trustem said. “This amendment has truly allowed women to determine their own futures, to be a voice at the table and to help steer policy in America. For that, I am beyond grateful.”
Trustem reflected on the past, present and future of women in the political sphere noting the imbalance among the sexes.
“Even after 100 years, there is still a large disparity. We can see that today in local, state and federal government, and we need more women to get involved,” Trustem said. “The hardest part can be throwing your name into the race, but you would be surprised how much support you will find.”
Speaking to her own experience in the political arena, Trustem said that the balancing act can be a difficult challenge to overcome — but it is well worth the hardships.
“I know the challenges of balancing a leadership role, career and personal life, but I also think it provides an opportunity to be an important mouthpiece for a large part of today’s population,” she said. “I had some truly amazing women that believed in me before I fully believed in myself. We need to take more time as a country to encourage others, make room for leaders of every age, and to build those around us regardless of gender.”
Trustem added, “At the end of the day, I wanted to show my daughter that anything was possible regardless of age, gender or social status. She attended meetings with me, campaigned with me, and on election day celebrated the victory with me. Each year, I take her to vote because I know it is never too early to teach your children, male or female, the importance of their voice.”
Concise history of suffrage in the Dakotas:
1840: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott attend World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. They were denied participation due to their gender.
1848: Seneca Falls Convention. Women draft a Declaration of Sentiments declaring that men and women were equal. Long considered to be the official launch of the women’s rights movement.
1869: Wyoming Territory becomes the first place to grant women the right to vote, a trend that would grow among the Western states.
1870: Congress passes the 14th and 15th Amendments. Black men are allowed to vote, while Congress refuses to extend the same right to women.
1872: A suffrage proposal comes before the Dakota Territory legislature and loses by a single vote.
1885: Dakota Territory Governor, Gilbert Pierce, vetoes woman suffrage bill.
1889: Susan B. Anthony arrives in South Dakota to help campaign for another go at suffrage.
1890: Suffrage loses in South Dakota and in multiple attempts thereafter.
1901: A woman suffrage bill was introduced into every legislative session between 1901 and 1911 in North Dakota.
1913: North Dakota legislature passes a bill allowing women the right to vote, but it is later referred to the 1914 general election. It is defeated.
1917: North Dakota grants women limited voting rights.
1918: South Dakota grants women the right to vote.
1919: Final approval in Congress for the 19th Amendment occurs on June 4, and it is sent to the states to be ratified. North Dakota agrees on ratification on December 1, 1920.