Mike Jacobs: Milestones but slow progress for ND women

Laura Eisenhuth was elected North Dakota superintendent of public instruction in 1892, when the state was just three years old. She was the first woman elected to a statewide office in the United States.

In 1933, Minnie Craig became speaker of the North Dakota House of Representatives, another first in the United States. Woman had presided over legislative bodies, but none in a permanent role.

These milestones are points of pride in the state, but they obscure the truth that North Dakota was otherwise late in accepting the role of women in politics.

The constitution adopted at statehood allowed women to vote only in school elections; their participation helped elect Eisenhuth. Amendments extending the right to vote were introduced in each legislative session from 1901 to 1911, and in 1913, the bill passed. As a constitutional amendment, it required approval at the 1914 election. The voters – all men – kept it out of the constitution.

Montana approved women’s suffrage in 1914, and in 1916, Montanans elected the first woman ever to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.


In North Dakota, by contrast, no woman has ever served in the U.S. House, and none served in the U.S. Senate until 1992, more than a century after statehood. Jocelyn Burdick took the so-called “widow’s route” to the office; she was appointed when her husband, Quentin Burdick, died in office. Jocelyn Burdick served for a few months; at age 97, she is now the oldest living former U.S. senator.

Heidi Heitkamp became the first woman elected to the Senate from North Dakota in 2012. She lost the seat in 2018.

South Dakota elected its first woman senator in 1938 and Minnesota in 2006. In both states, other women had reached the Senate earlier through the “widow’s route.”

Coya Knutson, who grew up at Edmore, N.D., represented northwestern Minnesota in the U.S. House from 1954 to 1958. Her career ended when her estranged husband wrote a famous letter urging “Coya, come home.”

Of the six “northwestern expansion states” -– North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming, admitted in that order in 1889 and 1890 -- North Dakota was the last to adopt women’s suffrage in 1919, trailing Wyoming by 29 years, Idaho by 23 years, Washington by nine years, Montana by four years and South Dakota by a year.

North Dakota proved an especially difficult state for suffrage advocates, though not for lack of effort. Elizabeth Preston Anderson was an active and outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage – and of Prohibition. Some historians have speculated that the combination was too much for North Dakotans – though in the event women got the right to vote before men got the right to drink. That didn’t happen until Prohibition was repealed nationally in 1933.

Another possible explanation is the role of Gilbert Asheville Pierce, who vetoed a women’s suffrage bill passed by the Territorial Legislature in 1885, four years before statehood. Pierce was popular in North Dakota, partly because he favored admission of two states rather than only one. He became the state’s first U.S. senator.

Even the tidal wave of popular democracy that brought direct election of senators and initiative and referendum to the state was not great enough to bring women the right to vote. That didn’t occur until 1919, when North Dakota ratified the suffrage amendment – one of several landmarks in that memorable year 100 years ago.


Still, voters didn’t go out of their way to encourage women to vote; in 1920, voters – at last including women – defeated a measure that would have allowed women to use absentee ballots if they lived more than a half mile from their polling place.

The state’s record of electing women to public office has improved; there were more women serving in the 2019 session than served in the first 80 years of statehood.

Since 1920 – the first year in which women voted for most statewide offices – 21 women have won office, but they are concentrated in a few offices and shut out of several others. There has never been a woman insurance commissioner, secretary of state or governor.

Five women have served as state treasurer, four as superintendent of public instruction, four on the Supreme Court, two on the Public Service Commission and two as lieutenant governor. Women have served as attorney general, auditor, agriculture commissioner and tax commissioner – in each office once.

This record exaggerates the number of individual woman office holders. Heitkamp was tax commissioner and attorney general. Berta Baker was successively treasurer and auditor – rolling up a total of 28 years in office. The lieutenant governor candidates ran on a ballot with male gubernatorial candidates.

Clearly equal representation in state office is overdue – and that fact might encourage the lengthening list of women dreaming of being the state’s first female governor.

Wrong again: Mike Nowatzki, Gov. Doug Burgum’s press officer, points out that Shannon Roers-Jones was legislative sponsor of Burgum’s higher education governance initiative, not the Theodore Roosevelt Library legislation.

To clarity, no petitions have been approved for circulation by the secretary of state and so no referenda are pending – though the threat is out there.


Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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