BISMARCK — One hundred years ago Sunday, a group of men gathered in the House chambers at the Capitol in Bismarck to decide whether to allow their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters the right to vote.
Of the 108 lawmakers present, 102 chose to extend full suffrage to women, making North Dakota the 20th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. It reads, in part: “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.”
When enough states followed suit the following summer, women in North Dakota and beyond finally had equality at the ballot box.
And they showed up in droves on Election Day that November.
The Bismarck Tribune reported that before the polls opened at 9 a.m., “a crowd of women” had gathered at the new Richholt school, which today houses the Bismarck Early Childhood Education Program.
Across town at the fire hall, the first three voters in line were Benedictine sisters who worked at St. Alexius Hospital. A journalist later counted 37 sisters marching together toward the polling place and noted that a woman whose leg had been amputated rolled up to a voting booth in a wheelchair, eager to cast her ballot.
The suffrage movement will be the focus of an event this Sunday at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum organized by the North Dakota Woman Suffrage Centennial Committee.
“Realizing the amount of work and effort that suffragists put in so that I have the right to go to vote makes me realize how important it is to vote and express my views,” committee co-chairwoman Susan Wefald said.
Running for office
Achieving suffrage opened doors for North Dakota women to run for office for positions outside of the school system.
Sen. Tom Pendray of Stutsman County saw that coming when the bill to ratify the 19th Amendment was introduced during the special legislative session in late November 1919.
“I went into the cloak room to hang up my overcoat, and there on my hook I found a nice lady’s coat and hat, or a lady’s nice coat and hat, as you please,” he told a Tribune reporter at the time. “I said to myself, ‘Here’s an omen, and it means that the next senator from Stutsman County will be a woman.’”
A handful of women became state lawmakers in the 1920s. Yet a century later, women are still underrepresented in many parts of government.
The Legislature, for example, has 31 female representatives and senators compared to 110 male.
Justice Lisa Fair McEvers, who is speaking at Sunday’s event, is the fourth woman to serve on the North Dakota Supreme Court. Over the years, several dozen men have been elected justices.
Growing up, she said, she didn’t have many female role models to look to in statewide office.
“It’s really been in the last 35, 40 years that women are finally seeing themselves in these kinds of roles,” she said.
Suffrage centennial event details
An event commemorating the 100-year anniversary of North Dakota’s ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, will take place Sunday, Dec. 1, at the Heritage Center.
The event titled “Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women” will run from 1-4:30 p.m.
A cartooning workshop led by Jess Rockeman will begin at 1 p.m.
Various speakers, including North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Lisa Fair McEvers, will take part in the official program, which will be held from 2-3 p.m. in the Russell Reid Auditorium. Bismarck musician Kris Kitko will lead several “suffrage songs” that women sang during the movement to rally support.
The hourlong film “One Woman, One Vote” will begin at 3:15 p.m. in the Great Plains Theater.
A number of activities for people of all ages are slated to run throughout the course of the event, including making “votes for women” banners and sashes, a suffrage “tea party” and a children’s voting booth, among others.