“The Women Voted”: School Suffrage in Dakota Territory and South Dakota

02 January 2020

Feeling empowered after the South Dakota Constitution of 1889 established women’s right to vote in school elections, a group of women convened in Rapid City to prepare for the upcoming school board election. In a packed meeting hall on 10 April 1890, the attendees approved a nonpartisan slate of four female candidates. Three of the women won their races, with close to one-fourth of the city’s eligible women casting ballots. School elections such as this one demonstrated women’s interest in voting and office holding decades before the United States granted full woman suffrage in 1920.

During their fight for equal voting rights, women in several states gained this limited ability to participate in public elections on school matters. In the decades that followed, many women exercised their partial franchise to elect school officers and win seats on school boards. Casting votes, campaigning for political positions, and serving as elected officials helped women gain experience and respect, thereby normalizing the concept of women voting and holding office.

While most scholarly treatments of the woman suffrage movement have focused on efforts by state and national leaders and organizations to achieve full suffrage, few have studied the role that partial suffrage, especially school suffrage, played in that movement. As my essay in Equality at the Ballot Box makes clear, women’s use of limited suffrage in South Dakota helped change the social reality and increased support for women’s right to participate fully in the political franchise.

Ruth Page Jones


The full version of this essay appears in Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains. Ruth Page Jones is an independent historian who studies communities and women in South Dakota.

Part of a wave of women who entered politics after gaining school suffrage rights, Grace Reed Porter (image at top) taught in a one-room school near Fort Pierre before winning an election to become superintendent of schools in Stanley County in 1908. South Dakota State Historical Society