Woman suffrage emerged as a political issue early in the history of Dakota Territory and later, South Dakota. After fifty years of struggle, the suffrage proponents finally persuaded the male voters to accept women as equals at the ballot box. Had the first legislative attempt succeeded, Dakota Territory would have taken its place in history as the first state or territory to grant that right in 1868. That year, the territorial House of Representatives passed a woman suffrage bill, but the session ended without a vote by the other chamber. Because territories did not have constitutions, laws regarding voting rights could be changed by legislative action only.
One year later, Wyoming Territory became the first to grant full franchise rights to women. In 1872, the Dakota Territory lawmakers once again came close, failing by a single vote to approve a bill granting full woman suffrage. In 1885, when the only fully enfranchised women lived in the territories of Wyoming, Utah, and Washington, Dakota Territory suffragists hopes were dashed once again, this time by the veto pen of the governor. After South Dakota became a state in 1889, voters rejected amendments for full woman suffrage five times (1890, 1898, 1910, 1914, 1916) before giving approval in 1918.
Why did so many campaigns fail? In the early campaigns, most of the ardent suffragists were also ardent temperance advocates who advocated for prohibition laws. By entwining those two issues, the suffragists faced a well-funded and politically connected enemy, the liquor lobby. In addition, the state’s large population of immigrants from Germany believed prohibition and woman suffrage to be an attack on their beer-drinking and patriarchal culture. Although legislators frequently supported woman suffrage, the state’s voters could not be swayed. By 1910, suffrage leaders had separated themselves from the temperance movement and gained converts with each subsequent election. In 1916, state voters approved prohibition, effectively silencing the liquor interests.
By 1918, women’s enthusiastic engagement in supporting the troops during World War I earned them respect as equal citizens. In addition, the war created a backlash against immigrants, especially those from Germany, who had the right to vote without being full citizens. As long as they had taken out papers declaring their intent to become citizens, immigrant men could vote in South Dakota elections. To address that concern, the woman suffrage amendment in 1918 included two components, one to give women voting rights and the other to take away pre-citizenship voting rights.
South Dakota suffragists never successfully created a coalition of special interests that could motivate their constituencies to support the woman’s vote. Ultimately though, they used patriotism and anti-German sentiment to align their interests with a majority of voters who then granted women equal voting rights in 1918.