Meredith Holt, Published March 14 2012
Exhibit focuses on two influential Fargo women who campaigned for suffrage
What: “Women of Considerable Influence” exhibit
When: Through March 31
Where: Memorial Union Gallery, NDSU
Info: Admission is free. (701) 231-7900.
FARGO - Most women today likely aren’t thinking about women’s suffrage as they collect their “I voted!” stickers on Election Day.
But previous generations had to fight for that right. Women’s History Month offers an opportunity to reflect on their contributions.
Though they weren’t at the national forefront like Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt or Alice Paul, influential Fargo women Ruth Roberts Haggart and Kate Selby Wilder contributed locally to the suffrage movement.
Most of what is known about Roberts Haggart and Wilder comes from journal entries and minutes from meetings of the organizations they were involved in, says Ann Braaten, assistant professor of apparel, retail merchandising and design at North Dakota State University.
Wilder, a lifelong women’s rights activist and the first female Fargo city commissioner, campaigned for suffrage in the lead-up to its ratification.
She was a speaker for the North Dakota Votes for Women League and wrote to several well-known lecturers.
In her diary, Haggart mentioned handing out cards and pamphlets, and she helped organize rummage sales to raise money for the cause, Braaten says.
Partial suffrage was granted to North Dakota women on Jan. 23, 1917, and the state ratified full suffrage on Dec. 1, 1919.
Haggart and other members of the league encouraged North Dakota women to vote after they received partial suffrage.
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified by the states on Aug. 18, 1920.
Wilder, a prominent suffragette, continued her efforts to further women’s rights almost to the day she died.
She was involved locally and nationally in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a women’s organization devoted to social reform.
On April 8, 1946, Wilder resigned from the WCTU. She died four days later.
“It was really her life’s work,” says Jacqueline WayneGuite, collection manager of the Emily Reynolds Historic Costume Collection at NDSU.
Wilder, born in 1876 in Pennsylvania, moved to Dakota Territory with her family when she was 4. In 1883, they moved to Grand Forks so she could get a better education.
Her parents were interested in helping their daughter realize her full potential. “She must have been a very precocious child,” Braaten says.
In 1901, she married Frank H. Wilder, moved to Fargo and founded the Fortnightly Club, a chapter of the WCTU. She served on the Fargo City Commission from 1919 to 1923, focusing on police work and public health, Braaten says.
Wilder was given a handgun when she was promoted to police commissioner. “She was very proud of that,” Braaten says with a smile.
Wilder was a tall woman, with a presence about her and wasn’t afraid to stand up for what she believed in. She once spoke on behalf of a high school teacher who was fired over a book selection. The teacher was rehired.
Haggart, another prominent Fargo suffragette, lived about two blocks from Wilder and was involved in some of the same organizations, but her role in the women’s movement wasn’t as public as Wilder’s and less is known about her, Braaten says.
In 1878, Ruth Roberts was born into a family at the forefront of development in the area. Downtown Fargo’s Roberts Street is named after them.
Haggart was also the niece of Sarah Comstock, for whom Comstock Memorial Union at Minnesota State University Moorhead is named.
“She grew up in Fargo and was educated here and had good friendships here,” Braaten says. So when she married Gilbert Haggart, the first male child born in Fargo, it was a “marriage of two deep Fargo families.”
Haggart had an independent streak. A 1917 diary entry mentions “motoring” (driving) alone, which was uncommon for women at the time.
Her husband was a lifelong Republican and North Dakota senator from 1917-20. While Wilder was progressive, Haggart likely shared her husband’s conservative political views.
What they did agree on was the importance of women’s suffrage.
After women were granted the right to vote, leaders like Wilder were concerned they wouldn’t exercise it, Braaten says.
But 92 years later, women “rock the vote” as 52 percent of our nation’s electorate.
Dressing the part
The clothes worn by prominent Fargo suffragettes Ruth Roberts Haggart and Kate Selby Wilder, along with portraits by regional artist Natasha Neihart, are on display at North Dakota State University’s Memorial Union Gallery.
The dresses in the Emily Reynolds Historic Costume Collection depict two distinct styles of women’s fashion in the early 1900s.
Haggart’s dress was fashioned in the “S silhouette,” created with the help of a corset and a bustle. The shape was becoming more old-fashioned toward the end of the women’s suffrage movement.
Wilder’s maroon-red dress features the drop-waist style of the mid-1920s, after suffrage was granted. Collection manager Jacqueline WayneGuite says the dress has an “art-deco feel.”
She and curator Ann Braaten think Wilder would have worn the red dress when she was active with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
The “Women of Considerable Influence” exhibit runs through March 31.
To stand out, suffrage marchers wore white “lingerie dresses,” made with lots of layers of sheer fabric and petticoats. They provided a visual sense of femininity, Braaten says.
WayneGuite says women wanted to show that “just because we want to vote doesn’t mean we’re going to stop being nurturing and feminine and beautiful.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590