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FARGO-MOORHEAD — In the late summer of 1920, the Roaring '20s were hardly roaring in the small, prairie cities of Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota — combined population 27,681. But despite not living in major metropolitan cities, women in Fargo-Moorhead played important roles in the fight for women's suffrage, which became law 100 years ago on August 26, 1920. In fact, according to historians, the sod-busting, salt-of-the-earth women of the Northern Plains and the western United States were among the first to fight for the right to vote.
It wouldn't be easy, but it was interesting. Here are a few little known facts — the fascinating people, places and things — that make up the fight for women’s suffrage in Fargo-Moorhead and beyond.
Women in the news
Perusing The Forum’s microfilm archives provides evidence that it wasn’t just the suffrage movement getting women in the pages of the newspaper in the days surrounding August 18, 1920. Women were making inroads for equality beyond voting. The Forum featured a photo and story about the only two women to work in The White House and another photo and story about the first woman to serve on the board of the U.S. Civil Service.
Other stories reflect the growing trend for women to challenge the status quo. A story from San Francisco showed some “trouble making” women getting hauled off to jail for wearing one piece bathing suits.
Other stories are harder to understand, like the trend by tea-drinking, upper-crust society women to make raccoons the latest "it" pet.
Downtown Fargo an active hub
The heart of the suffrage movement beat in downtown Fargo, largely on one block. Recently, a sign was erected on the corner of 7th Street and Main Avenue outside what was once the De Lendrecie's department store (now retail space and apartments) owned by popular suffragist Helen DeLendrecie and her husband O.J.
“She and her husband were progressive people, and they had this big building, so when the North Dakota Votes for Women's League was organized, she offered office space for that group,” said Ann Braaten, Associate Professor and Curator of the Emily P. Reynolds Historic Costume Collection at North Dakota State University. “So they had a place that was public, and it was open certain days of the week for people to come in and visit with somebody that was knowledgeable about suffrage and pick up literature.”
To the east, where an architecture firm now sits, was the home of The Waldorf Hotel, where the first North Dakota Suffrage organizing convention was held. Just to the north, near the old depot where the Fargo Park District offices are now located, is where the pro- suffrage group, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), would meet.
Women’s clubs to the rescue
Women’s clubs, like the WCTU, were at the forefront of the suffrage movement in Fargo-Moorhead and elsewhere. Women, most of whom did not work outside the home, needed a way to organize and network with other women. Clubs became the way to do that. There were five such clubs in Fargo-Moorhead.
“Three of them were European, Protestant women and two of them were Scandinavian, Lutheran women. They organized themselves according to their ethnicity,” Braaten said.
Suffrage comes after prohibition
The women’s suffrage movement got its start at the first women’s rights convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, but it would be more than 70 years later that the right to vote was secured. One argument against women’s suffrage came from men who figured if women were given the right to vote, prohibition would most definitely become the law of the land. (This was a safe assumption, since the WCTU's primary purpose was to combat the influence of alcohol on families and society.) But when the 18th amendment creating prohibition became law in January of 1920, even before women got the right to vote, the argument became moot. The horse was out of the barn, and many liquor-loving men figured they had nothing more to lose by finally giving women the right to vote. Nonetheless, liquor manufacturers and saloon owners continued to oppose women's suffrage for fear voting women would block any future repeal of Prohibition, which eventually came in 1933.
Women here were voting before 1920
In the late 1800's, women in North Dakota and Minnesota were allowed to cast ballots in some races, mostly local. But the women knew that wasn't enough, and they committed to fighting for the passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote wherever men could — federal, state and local levels. Minnesota would become the 15th state to ratify what would become the 19th amendment, North Dakota the 20th. (Tennessee became the 36th and last state needed to ratify on August 18, 1920).
Suffragist not Suffragette, please
While the two terms are often used interchangeably, most of the women who fought for the right to vote preferred the term “Suffragist” to “Suffragette.” According to Amazing Women in History, the word “suffragette” was coined by journalist Charles E. Hands in an article he wrote for the London Daily Mail in 1906. He used the diminutive ending “-ette” to mock and disparage the women. Some more militant suffragists decided to embrace the word, emphasizing that SuffraGETtes will “GET” the right to vote. But the majority of women's right-to-vote advocates, including those in Fargo-Moorhead, preferred 'Suffragist' to 'Suffragette.'
The movers and shakers of local suffrage
In addition to O.J. and Helen DeLendrecie, several other well-known names in Fargo-Moorhead history were front and center in the suffrage fight. Cornelia Probstfield Gesell was a member of one of the first families to settle in the Red River Valley and was a suffragist as well. Moorhead suffragist Anna Gates became the city’s first policewoman. Kate Selby Wilder became the first woman elected to Fargo City Commission. College-educated, local physician’s wife Clara Dillon Darrow, penned the nationally-acclaimed speech “I want to vote", and would host internationally famous suffragists in her 8th street home. Her daughters, Elizabeth Darrow O’Neill and Mary Darrow Weible would follow in their mother’s suffragist footsteps. Weible Hall at NDSU is named for Mary, who was a graduate of the school.
“These women were all ahead of their time,” according to Braaten.
Markus Krueger, programming director of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, agrees. “I think these women were some of the most interesting figures in our local history," said Krueger.
Dress for success
Have you ever noticed in photos of suffragists they’re often wearing white? That wasn’t just a coincidence. Early on, suffragists were often portrayed as masculine and ugly. To help counter that, organizers encouraged the women to look appealing and not like “woefully unattractive crones or aggressive hellions,” according to suffrage writer T.J. Boisseau . And white, in particular, was meant to symbolize the femininity and purity of the suffrage cause. Once such white dress can be seen at NDSU’s Emily P. Reynold’s Historic Costume Collection. It belonged to Kate Selby Wilder and was donated by her daughter in 1988.
“Wilder’s dress shows that women active in the Northern Great Plains suffrage movement wore this pseudo-uniform too,” Braaten said. “The dress’s soft fabric and feminine lace assured people that women’s traditional roles would not be forgotten once women achieved the right to vote.”
Not every woman got the right to vote
While much has been made about this 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, it’s important to note, not all women got the right to vote on Aug. 26, 1920. Native American women didn’t get the right to vote until 1924, Chinese women immigrants received the right to vote in 1943, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 increased the opportunities for African American women to vote.
Interested in learning more?
Local organizations had planned celebrations to mark the suffrage anniversary, but COVID-19 put a stop to that. However, walking tours of notable women’s suffrage landmarks in town are in the works. For more information, visit the website or Facebook page of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.
Krueger is helping organize the walking tours, and he says the story of suffragists in our area is worth hearing and something you wouldn’t get by just skimming through the history books.
“I’m not going to say they’ve been hidden from history, but you've got to look deep and purposefully in order to find their story, and they have fascinating stories,” Krueger said. “They did amazing things.”