Cora Smith Eaton and North Dakota Woman Suffrage

29 October 2019

In the late summer of 1890, Cora E. Smith and her mother, Sara Emma Barnes Smith, became the first women to vote in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The new state of North Dakota’s constitution had granted women limited school suffrage rights, so the Smiths cast their ballots in a special local election called to establish an independent school district in Grand Forks. This small act of civic participation might have remained relegated to a few lines buried on the dusty pages of old newspapers; however, the exercise of the franchise in this minor election marked a key moment in the career of Cora Smith Eaton—as she would be known after her 1893 marriage—who worked extensively for full woman suffrage in North Dakota.

While early full suffrage campaigns on the Northern Great Plains ultimately fell short, they secured limited voting rights for North Dakota women and provided young suffragists like Smith Eaton with valuable leadership and political organizing experience that they employed in successful campaigns in other states. From her first foray into the work of women’s equality while a student at the University of North Dakota, Smith Eaton was a staunch suffragist. She led the movement in North Dakota and later Minnesota while balancing a successful career in medicine before moving farther West. In Washington State, she partnered with Emma Smith DeVoe, who had started her career in South Dakota. Together, they helped Washington earn its honor as the fifth star on the national suffrage flag in 1910. Following that success, DeVoe and Smith Eaton established the National Council of Women Voters, a nonpartisan union of full suffrage states that supported the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in the years preceding the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. As Cora Smith Eaton’s Northern Great Plains story shows, North Dakota’s loss allowed others to gain.

Kristin Mapel Bloomberg

 


The full version of this essay appears in Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains. Kristin Mapel Bloomberg is professor of women’s studies at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she also holds the Hamline University Endowed Chair in the Humanities.

 

The image at top is of Cora Smith Eaton, c. 1889. Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota