The 2018 election is an important milestone for South Dakota elections. It was 100 years ago – on November 5, 1918 – that South Dakota voters, all men, gave women the right to vote in our state for the first time. It was a long-awaited victory for voting rights forwomen. Women’s suffragists – both men and women – had campaigned for women’ssuffrage since the 1870s, during the era of Dakota Territory.
To celebrate this milestone, I have declared November 2018 as “Women’s Right to Vote Month.” It is an opportunity to remember the efforts of the suffragists who fought for this right for women, and to consider the many women who have played a role in politics since that time.
Perhaps South Dakota’s most notable female political figure is Gladys Pyle of Huron. Pyle was born in 1890 into a political family – her father was attorney general, and her mother was a leading South Dakota suffragist. Gladys Pyle ran for the State House of Representatives in 1922, at the age of 32 and only four years after women gained the right to vote. She was elected, making her the first woman to serve in the South Dakota State Legislature. After four years, she was elected Secretary of State in 1926, making her the first woman to serve in statewide office.
In 1930, Gladys Pyle ran for the Republican nomination for governor. She finished first in a five-candidate field with 28.3% of the vote. State law, however, required that the primary winner secure at least 35% of the vote – if no candidate did, the State Republican Convention would choose from among the primary candidates. This was bad news for Pyle – she was an outsider and many of the other candidate’s supporters wouldn’t support a woman. The deadlocked convention eventually took 12 ballots before, as a compromise, it nominated Warren E. Green, a Hamlin County farmer who had finished dead last in the primary with 7.4%.
Had Pyle been elected, she would have been the first female governor in the United States who had not been the wife or widow of a previous governor. It would be forty-four years before another woman, Ella Grasso of Connecticut, finally broke that barrier in 1974. Pyle, however, went on to set another milestone; she became the first woman to represent South Dakota in the U. S. Senate when she was elected to complete Peter Norbeck’s term following his death.
Many other women have followed in Gladys Pyle’s footsteps, serving as secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor, and public utilities commissioner. Former first lady Vera Bushfield briefly served in the U.S. Senate, taking the place of her late husband. In 2004, Stephanie Herseth became the first woman elected to the U.S. House from South Dakota; she was succeeded by another woman, Kristi Noem. Three women have served on our state’s Supreme Court: Judith Meierhenry, Lori Wilbur and Janine Kern.
Women have also broken barriers in the State Legislature. Mary McClure became the first woman to be a legislative leader when she served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate from 1979-89. She was followed by Debra Anderson, who was Speaker of the House from 1987-88; Jan Nicolay, who chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee from 1987-96; and Barb Everist, who was the first woman to be Senate Majority Leader in 2001-02. As a state senator, I was privileged to serve with Carole Hillard, who presided over the Senate as South Dakota’s first female lieutenant governor. Many other women have served in leadership roles and as committee chairs.
In just a few days, South Dakotans will go to their polling places to cast their ballots. We will be electing a new governor, a new congressman, and other statewide officials. All 105 legislative seats will be filled. Voters will consider five ballot measures, and many local governments will hold elections as well. It may be another historic year for women. Both gubernatorial tickets include women, and more than sixty women are running for the State Legislature.
This year’s election is 100 years and one day after South Dakota women gained the right to vote. In the scope of history, that really isn’t a very long time. It is a good reminder that voting is a privilege that we should never take for granted – there are still many places in the world where free, fair elections are only a dream. I hope that all South Dakotans – men and women – will study the candidates and issues, and remember to vote on or before November 6.