Section 1: Introduction
In 1868, when the nation was recovering from the wounds of the Civil War, Congress and the states passed the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution to guarantee rights of citizenship to freed African American men. That amendment used the word “male.” It was the first time the Constitution guaranteed voting rights only to men. Women who sought the right to vote were shocked. Gaining the suffrage, or right to vote, was a huge task when it had to be acquired state by state. But when the constitution had to be amended by congressmen and legislatures that were controlled by men, the task seemed nearly impossible.
The Constitution leaves regulation of voting to the states. Dakota Territory granted women the right to vote in school elections in 1883. The state of North Dakota carried that provision into its new state constitution in 1889. Though women of North Dakota did not rise up as a group and demand the franchise (yet another word for voting), the issue was often debated in public and in the legislature between 1870 and 1920.
Nationally, suffragists attended local and national conferences. They petitioned, wrote letters, and educated the men in their families. Women also took on more public roles, particularly in caring for the poor and sick. Many western states and territories granted women full suffrage (except for presidential elections). Wyoming Territory was the first in 1869. By 1919, 13 of 16 western states had granted women full suffrage, but North Dakota women had only school suffrage until 1917.
North Dakota’s suffrage campaign can be divided into two time periods. The first time period began in early territorial days and lasted until 1893 when the legislature failed to pass a woman suffrage bill. Following that legislative session, woman suffrage had little attention. However, in 1912, well-educated women, many associated with the University of North Dakota or with the North Dakota Agricultural College, began to raise the issue again. The second period, therefore, started around 1912 and lasted until women gained full suffrage in 1920.
Women’s interest in gaining suffrage was part of a larger movement to guarantee fundamental human rights to all people. African American men had a constitutional guarantee to the vote, but some states placed so many obstacles in their path that they actually could not cast a vote. American Indians, too, sought the human rights guaranteed by citizenship. North Dakota’s American Indian men and women were granted citizenship when they accepted a property ownership under the severalty law (Dawes Act), worked the land, and became Christians. However, citizenship did not guarantee Indian men the right to vote.
In 1920, a Lakota named Martin Swift Cloud sued the Board of County Commissioners of Sioux County for the right to vote. Swift’s story is part of our suffrage story. Both women’s suffrage and American Indian suffrage were considered progressive issues.
Suffrage issues were part of a larger, national turn to wider participation by all citizens in state, local, and federal government. Direct democracy (initiative, referendum, recall, and direct election of Senators) required active involvement of citizens. It was a logical expansion of democracy in the early 20th century.
Pop-up: In 1879, the territorial legislature identified the legal voters at a school district meeting. The law (Chapter XIV Education, Sec. 30) states that “All persons over the age of twenty-one years who are citizens of the United States . . . shall be entitled to vote at such a meeting.” This is not a true suffrage law. Women could not vote at a general election under this law. Women could attend a district school meeting and vote only on local issues such as school books or teachers’ salaries. This law contributed to the experience of women voting on public issues, but in the form of a community meeting not a general election. The first woman suffrage law did not pass until 1883.