Friday, January 3, 2014
On this day in 1933, North Dakota’s House of Representatives elected a speaker who was a little different from the average joe…especially since she was a jane. At age 49, Mrs. Minnie D. Craig of Esmond, North Dakota, became the first female speaker in the United States.
When majority house leader Herbert F. Swett nominated Craig for this position, he said, “Never before in the history of this state, or so far as I know in the history of the United States—and very likely in the history of the world…has a woman been accorded the honor of presiding over a legislative session.”
Minnie Craig had a full political life. She was one of the first two women elected to serve as a legislator in 1922 and she served in the five following sessions. Craig was well-known and well-liked. She was almost unanimously elected, with the democratic nomination receiving only 11 to her 101 votes. Swett predicted this honor opened a “new era” for women.
Progress can be slow, though. Although Craig was elected the first female Speaker, nobody knew how to address her!
According to rules the House established at their last session, the proper address for the Speaker was decidedly masculine. The Bismarck Tribune reprinted this rule which stated, “Every member previous to his speaking shall rise from his seat, and respectfully address ‘Mr. Speaker,’ and remain…until he is recognized by the chair.” These rules stood until the House adopted amendments or corrections to them.
“Should a woman speaker of the house be addressed as ‘Mrs. Speaker,’ ‘Madame Speaker,’ or ‘Mr. Speaker?’” the Bismarck Tribune asked. So did everyone else, including Chief Justice W. L. Nuessle, who gave Craig her oath.
Craig didn’t mind how she was addressed, but it was reported that she sometimes wished to be called “Mr.” Speaker, so as not to draw attention to her gender.
Soon after the start of this ‘new era,’ though, one Bismarck paper proudly proclaimed: “It is with pleasure that we note that the term ‘Madam Speaker’ has been selected as your salutation. It is the fitting and proper title. It designates your authority and yet retains the respect that is naturally accorded your sex. It will not serve as a constant reminder that you might in the eyes of some be usurping a place intended for a man.”
Craig served her last session in the House as “Madam” Speaker. She was as a constant female presence in the house for over a decade, one of only twenty women who served in the Senate or House between 1922 and 1969. Her perseverance and leadership brought honor to her and to North Dakota.
Minnie Craig stayed active until she died in the sixties, as the women’s movement swept through the country. Her life set an example for those and all women.
Perhaps they remembered her policy: “Conservatism is all right…and many times it is the best policy, but it takes a bit of radicalism now and then to keep conservatism from putting the world at a standstill.”
Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker
Bismarck Tribune, Wednesday, January 4, 1933
Bismarck Tribune, Tuesday, January 3, 1933
Bismarck Capital, Thursday, January 5, 1933
Bismarck Capital, Tuesday, January 10, 1933
North Dakota Blue Book, 1997-99
1933 House Journal