North Dakota elected first woman to a statewide office

Voters in North Dakota elected the first woman in the nation as administrator of a statewide office. When Laura Eisenhuth was elected North Dakota superintendent of public instruction in 1892, women in America had few voting privileges. In North ...

Laura Eisenhuth

Voters in North Dakota elected the first woman in the nation as administrator of a statewide office.

When Laura Eisenhuth was elected North Dakota superintendent of public instruction in 1892, women in America had few voting privileges. In North Dakota, women could only vote on school matters, so the only statewide office for which they could cast their ballot was state school superintendent.

In 1890, Eisenhuth was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for state superintendent and received 45 percent of the votes in the general election. In 1892, Eisenhuth was endorsed by both the Democratic and Populist parties and was elected with 53 percent of the votes.

The 1892 election received national coverage. After Eisenhuth was elected and took office and Armageddon did not occur, one national newspaper columnist wrote, "There was no convulsion of nature, neither did the sun stand still, nor was there silence in heaven for even half a minute when Mrs. Laura J. Eisenhuth, the newly elected state superintendent of the public schools in North Dakota, assumed the duties of her office. All goes

well ..."


Laura J. Kelly was born May 29, 1859, in Blenheim, Ontario, to Thomas and Anna Kelly. In 1863, the Kellys moved to DeWitt, Iowa. After graduating from college, Laura took a teaching position at DeWitt High School. In June 1885, Kelly made her first trip to Dakota Territory and filed a pre-emption claim to 160 acres near New Rockford. In the fall, she resumed her teaching position at DeWitt and then returned to her homestead the following two summers.

In fall 1887, Kelly married Willis Eisenhuth, who owned a drug store in Carrington. Before coming to Dakota Territory in 1882, Willis had been a teacher at his hometown in Millheim, Pa.

Shortly after Laura Eisenhuth's marriage and move to Carrington, the town's school faced a crisis when its only teacher resigned one month into the school year. The school board persuaded Eisenhuth to fill in until another teacher could be found.

No one was found, so Eisenhuth taught 80 students in a one-room school for the entire school year. She also taught the next year but was provided an assistant.

Eisenhuth was elected superintendent of Foster County in 1889 and re-elected the following year. In 1890, she was appointed state institute conductor and presided over eight teacher institutes in the northern part of the state. That same year, she was endorsed by the Democratic Party to run for state Superintendent of Public Instruction. She lost and continued her work as institute conductor.

In 1892, Eisenhuth was endorsed by the Democratic and Populist parties to run against Republican Joseph M. Devine for state superintendent. Devine was an educator from LaMoure who served as governor in 1898. The focus of Eisenhuth's campaign was to improve education in the state through better teacher education. Eisenhuth received 19,078 votes, and Devine received 17,343.

When Eisenhuth took office in January 1893, she appointed W.R. Bierly of Grand Forks as deputy superintendent. Her nomination was turned down by Gov. Eli Shortridge. In early February, Kelly nominated her husband as deputy superintendent, and Shortridge accepted the nomination. The Eisenhuths purchased a home in Bismarck.

Laura Eisenhuth continued to emphasize professional development and conducted many teacher workshops. Her ambitious goals of building new schools and improving the conditions in other schools were curtailed because of a state economic downtown in 1893. Laura received another major blow when Willis became very ill in October and had to be sent back to his family in Pennsylvania to try to recuperate. When he returned, he spent long periods of time at a hospital in Jamestown.


Laura Eisenhuth was defeated by Republican Emma Bates when she ran for re-election in 1894. Eisenhuth reported that much had been accomplished during her two years heading the state department. She wrote about the professional development of teachers, the 19,611-student increase in enrollment and the 202 new schools constructed.

Largely because of Willis' poor health, the Eisenhuths suffered extreme financial hardships. They lost the Carrington newspaper he founded, their drug store, and their Bismarck home and all its possessions because of unpaid county taxes. Eisenhuth ran for superintendent of public instruction in 1896 and again in 1900 but was unsuccessful.

After Willis died in May 1902, Laura returned to teaching in Carrington that fall. In 1907, she married Ludwig Alming, and in 1909, they moved to Jacksonville in southwestern Oregon, where they operated a fruit farm. Laura Eisenhuth Alming died on Sept. 30, 1937.

"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at

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