Women and Gender in the Nonpartisan League
Michael J. Lansing, Augsburg College
When it comes to rural women’s history and American (and Canadian) politics, we don’t know much as much as we should. Despite decades of work on gender and democracy, scholars too often overlook the significance of rural women in the political world. Thankfully, recent work by historians such as Jenny Barker Divine and Sara Egge has started to change that. Nonetheless, more attention needs to be paid to how women in the countryside thought and acted when it came to political parties, candidates, elections, citizenship, and the issues of the day.
This is especially true when considering the moment that immediately followed the extension of women’s suffrage in the late 1910s. Close attention to women and to gender in the most important North American rural political movement of the 1910s and 1920s—the Nonpartisan League (NPL)—reveals some answers and raises tantalizing questions.
In the early twentieth century, farmer discontent in North Dakota grew despite rising prices for wheat. Dependence on monoculture agriculture left farmers in a precarious economic position. Credit ran short. Local banks gouged farmers with exorbitant interest rates on mortgages. Minneapolis-based millers controlled commodity prices and railroad shipping rates. They also exerted undue influence in Bismarck, the state capital. Together, these factors fostered a culture of dependence dramatically at odds with farmers’ lower middle-class expectations.
In 1915, they responded to their plight by creating the biggest challenge to party politics-as-usual ever seen. Their organization, the NPL, deployed novel tactics that challenged existing political and economic institutions in an effort to empower citizens without direct access to power. Touting a program of government competition that set up state-owned enterprises to challenge private corporations in various economic sectors, the NPL hoped to channel the growing anger among agrarians into a cohesive voting block that broke with party-centered politics.
As a result, the League drove a brief but powerful electoral insurgency. At its peak, almost 250,000 paying members lived in thirteen states and two Canadian provinces. The League also temporarily controlled the state of North Dakota, where it instituted a state flour mill, state grain elevator, and state bank, all in operation today.
The movement itself grew from both the rise of indebtedness and the fear of foreclosure. Land ownership proved crucial to a male farmer’s self identity. Furthermore, in a culture that valued hard work, foreclosure meant that one’s moral economy could be questioned. Losing one’s farm signified not only economic failure, but also unmanned farmers, whose sense of self depended on the outward display of self-reliance and independence embodied in farm ownership.
Indebtedness, the fear of foreclosure, and the loss of economic independence struck at the very core of male agrarian self-conception. Indeed, the Nonpartisan League grew rapidly in the late 1910s through careful appeals to the political protection of self-determined manhood. The organization discursively focused on motivating farmers through appeals to the patriarchal protection of families instead of imagining every member of that family as an agrarian and citizen.
But as full suffrage became the law of the land, the League’s initial emphasis on agrarian manhood unevenly gave way to an effort to draw in women voters. In fact, farm women turned the organization into a locus for gender-specific civic agency.
Canadian women led the way. In June 1917, for instance, the Alberta Nonpartisan League elected Louise McKinney to the province’s legislative assembly. This made her the first woman elected to a parliamentary body in the British Empire. As a longtime WCTU organizer and a social gospel adherent, McKinney worked hard to bring women the right to vote and address the ills of society. She hoped to transform Canada in multiple ways and saw the NPL as the perfect vehicle for women to do so.
Once it became clear that women would have the right to vote in all elections in the United States, the NPL there finally began to organize women as well as men. Though their formation of gender-specific women’s clubs showed the limits of League efforts to empower, farm women seized on the opportunity to participate in electoral politics in a new way. “How good it is,” one relieved farm wife declared, “to find a friend with a common point of view in a common meeting place in the Nonpartisan League!”
Most rural women envisioned their own empowerment as the most important issue. One League woman in Montana declared that “we are not going to talk about recipes for rhubarb conserve or how to remove rust from the stovepipe.” Instead, “we want to know about the great battles for human rights so that we can vote straight when the time comes.” Women in Crook, Colorado spent the summer of 1921 doing “civic work.” In Dalbo, Minnesota, members of the NPL club began studying civil government, with “different members taking turns in leading the lesson.” All this “training of our mental powers raises us above the slave level,” as another NPL club woman put it.
By breaking open the League’s commitment to protecting and promoting a particular vision of agrarian manhood, the rise of women in the League expanded the civic sphere in the rural West. No longer shackled by a discursive and structural emphasis solely centered on agrarian manhood, the broader potential of the NPL began to be embraced. Unfortunately for the League, it was too late. By 1923, the movement’s moment passed. Rural women, however, embraced electoral politics anew, which served them well during the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s.
For more on women in the Nonpartisan League, see Michael J. Lansing’s new book, Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics.