The Constitutional Convention met on July 4, 1889 to prepare the document that would provide the foundation for governance in the new state of North Dakota. The convention was presented a constitution that had been drawn up by Professor James Thayer of Harvard Law School, written at the request of Henry Villard, chairman of the board of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Few questioned that the railroad, which opposed both prohibition and woman suffrage, would have a strong influence in state government. Thayer’s constitution was amended many times before the convention closed on August 17.
Among the issues before the convention were the placement of state schools and institutions, child labor, and suffrage for immigrants. Woman suffrage was another debate that not only had place in this convention, but in the United States as well. By this time, the territory of Wyoming had granted women the right to vote and hold office. Other states and territories had offered women limited suffrage. Women had voted on school issues in Dakota Territory since 1883. The debates concerning full woman suffrage as well as the right of women to hold office tells us a lot about what people at the time were thinking of political and social issues.
During the Constitutional Convention, the leadership of woman suffrage was in the hands of Linda Warfel Slaughter of Bismarck. It is not likely that there were any other members of the National Woman Suffrage Association or their rivals, the American Woman Suffrage Association in North Dakota. The members of the convention were correct in assuming that there was no widespread “agitation” for suffrage at that time. Shortly after statehood, Elizabeth Preston Anderson was elected president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and as leader of the “dry” forces she understood how closely the two issues were linked.
North Dakota gave women the right to vote on school issues, but the legislature refused to grant an extension of the franchise until 1917 (under the Non-partisan League). This advance was still not complete, and women did not have full suffrage until the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
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