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Published December 19 2010

From curiosity to voice of women in North Dakota

The first women elected to the North Dakota Legislature were described as “a musician of ability and a good cook” and as “a slight slip of womanhood, youthful and obviously earnest.”

Minnie Craig of Esmond and Nellie Dougherty of Minot served in the 1923 North Dakota Legislature. Some of their history – along with other North Dakota women lawmakers – is outlined in the 1992 book “Lady, If You Go Into Politics.”

Ann Rathke, who now lives in Fargo, wrote the book for her master’s thesis.

“There weren’t a lot of resources about women in politics, much less in state legislatures,” Rathke said. “The book gave North Dakota a chance to have the story (told) of the women legislators and their really coming of age as a force in that arena.”

The book includes this advice from Craig in a 1933 Fargo Forum story:

“Lady, if you go into politics, leave the men alone. Don’t run to them for everything you want to know. Don’t swallow all they tell you. Post yourself first, establish your own opinions – don’t be a gull. Build your own knowledge and confidence – and do it by yourself.”

The first 20 women to serve in North Dakota’s Legislature were viewed with curiosity by the press and presumably their male colleagues, Rathke wrote: “They were subjected to a considerable amount of inquisitiveness regarding how they fulfilled the traditional roles of mother and homemaker.”

By 1974, “female legislative candidates reported that they were better accepted in that campaign than in previous campaigns. Evidence of this, they believed, was a reduced interest in their families and what they wore and increased interest in their stands on issues and their campaign strategies.”

In 1983, Tish Kelly of Fargo was the second woman to serve as speaker of the House, 50 years after Craig broke the barrier.

Kelly, who served in both legislative chambers between 1974 and 1994, said women in her day were determined to get involved with more than education and human services issues.

They felt it was important to also be part of decisions on Finance and Taxation, Industry, Business and Labor, and Appropriations.

Kelly recalled in a recent interview how she “pounded the pavement” to tell voters about herself and why she was running for office.

“I really did frankly think this was something women should do,” Kelly said, “because they have a big stake in decisions that are made. I felt they needed to have a voice.”

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.