Becky Matthews
 

Women's Equality day is an annual event celebrated in the United States to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment -- Women's Suffrage Movement and its victory in 1919 for all women having the right to vote in all elections. Women's Equality day now celebrates and remembers our past, other important women in history, and encourages further equality.

Jessy Hegland, of Bismarck, considered, "What was the suffrage movement like for women in North Dakota?" She works at the Former State Governor's Mansion State Historic Site and mentioned at work her thoughts. She was led to Dr. Barbara Handy-Marchello who was then set up to speak for the North Dakota Women's Network annual Women's Equality day even in the fall of 2013. Handy-Marchello's presentation was again brought to the community this January on a cold night.

Wyoming was the first territory or state to pass full suffrage in 1869. It is how Wyoming received its states slogan, "Equality State." The Western United States was much more welcoming to the idea of women's suffrage.

Nationally Women's suffrage was closely tied to the anti-slavery movement and prohibition. The national movement came to North Dakota by homesteading daughters of national figures.

As a territory in 1869 a bill was presented to strike the word "male" from the election laws. It failed. However in 1873 a woman was appointed to Burleigh County Superintendent of Schools. The case regarding her ability to serve went to the North Dakota Supreme court which it was upheld her right to hold public office, even though she could not vote in any public elections. In 1883 women were granted school suffrage meaning they could vote on issues directly pertaining to schools.

In 1885 again a bill was presented but was vetoed. When North Dakota became a state in 1889, women's suffrage was not part of the state constitution. Prohibition was part of the constitution, but it was such fragile legislation that it was separated out and voted on separately. This piece about prohibition is a very important link to women's suffrage in the United States, but also in North Dakota.

In 1893 a full suffrage bill was again presented. This time, however, it passed the house, it passed the senate. The political boss at the time, Alexander Mckenzie, did not want suffrage, and the bill was "lost" on the way to the governor's desk to be signed. It was back to the Senate, and for reasons we do not know it failed. The House then wipes its initially passage clean. We only know this historic account from letters to Elizabeth Anderson.

Why would Mckenzie care about suffrage? This is where politics gets interesting and corrupt. McKenzie was a railroad man. He did not want railroad regulations put into place. His threat was always if railroad regulations were put up to a vote, he would put prohibition up for a vote. Remember how fragile that piece of legislation was. McKenzie knew if women received suffrage, prohibition would have much stronger support and he would lose that as leverage.

There are many other bills presented. We do not see movement again on women's suffrage until 1917 when women in North Dakota were awarded limited suffrage to include county, some city and township elections.

Finally in 1920 after the 19th Amendment passed did women in North Dakota finally receive full suffrage. The organizations that fought for suffrage continued -- the two best known being the League of Women Voters and National Organization of Women. A questions was asked to Handy-Marchello how it was then for women in politics and how it is now. Handy-Marchello said, "Then, women were not at all considered. Women now have to step up and say, 'I am ready to take the chance.'"

Renee Stromme, from the North Dakota Women Network said, "We (north Dakota) have never exceeded 20 percent of representation in our State Legislature." Renee also pointed out the imbalance of the current state appointments.

Leaving Karen Ryberg said "Women's actions and stories have been left out of history, either very intentionally or simply because the writers of history deemed them unimportant. Handy-Marchello gave an example of a suffrage bill that passed the North Dakota Legislature but never made it to the Governor's office and was then struck from the official record. We know about it because of correspondence from individuals involved and Dr. Handy-Marchello bringing it to light for us. This is an important reclaiming of our history."

So is women's equality really met yet? Does North Dakota still have improvements to make in the arena of women in politics, professional programs, equal pay and childcare? The question remains for women today.

Becky Matthews has a degree in Occupational Therapy and for the last 12 years has been a stay at home mom to her four children. She is currently on the Board of Directors for the North Dakota Women's Network and is looking forward to continued political and community involvement.



 
Becky Matthews has a degree in Occupational Therapy and for the last 12 years has been a stay at home mom to her four children. She is currently on the Board of Directors for the North Dakota Women's Network and is looking forward to continued political and community involvement.