|Minnie D. Craig, Speaker of the North Dakota House of Representatives.|
When the new session of the North Dakota House of Representatives got together for their new session on December 3, 1933 they did something unprecedented—they elected a woman, Minnie D. Craig, as Speaker of the House. She became the first America woman to lead a state legislative body. Craig, just elected to her sixth term was the leader of the state Non-Partisan League, a populist/socialist alternative to both the Democratic and Republican Parties in state government that supported cooperative grain marketing, publicly owned utilities, and other moderate socialist policies.
Craig was a transplant to North Dakota, but then so were many of her constituents in the high plains state just about 50 years removed from frontier days when she was first elected to the House in 1922.
She was born in Phillips, Maine on November 4, 1883 to Marshall and Aura Davenport. Her family was middle class and encouraged her accomplishments as a bright and promising student. She was educated at Farmington State Normal School and then attended the New England Conservatory of Music before settling into a career as a teacher.
|As a New England Conservatory student.|
In 1908 she married an ambitious young man, Edward Craig. The young couple moved to the wheat farming center of Esmond, North Dakota near the Canadian border. He was president of the local Bank. She gave local children music lessons. They became respected and admired citizens.
They also share interest in civic affairs. Minnie, like so many educated New England women, was an ardent suffragist. Both were active Republicans, supporting the brand of progressivism advocated by Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette and which was gaining strength across the Upper Midwest.
In 1915 long time tensions between North Dakota farmers and small business people and the powerful corporate interests based in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota which considered the state vassal province boiled over. Minnesota banks monopolized agricultural loans on which farmers depended for cash to buy seed and pay the huge threshing crews needed for harvest. And they were quick to foreclose during inevitable bad crop years. Minneapolis mills were virtually the only customers for the wheat and could dictate prices. The Northern Pacific Railroad—the farmer’s old foes since the days of the Populists, continued to use their monopoly on hauling the grain to set artificially high freight rates. Farmers felt squeezed on all sides and so did the local merchants who served them.
Even the state’s politics was in control of forces from the state to the east. The dominant Republican Party was in control of a machine directed by Alexander McKenzie who ruled on behalf of the corporations from St. Paul. When an angry delegation of farmers demanding reform was sneeringly told to “go home and slop the hogs” by the Republican speaker of the house, it set off a new political movement.
A. C. Townley, a flax farmer and former Socialist Party organizer from Beach, North Dakota, and Fred Wood, drew up a radical political platform on Wood’s kitchen table that addressed many of the farmers’ concerns. Townley crisscrossed the vast state in a borrowed Tin Lizzie to sign up members in his new alternative political organization—the Non-Partisan League. Angry farmers, not a few local merchants, and trade union members flocked to sign up, willing to plunk down the not insignificant sum of $6 for annual dues.
|From the cover of the Non-Partisan League's National Leader magazine in January 1919.|
With the dues Townley and his supporters financed newspapers, brochures, and speaking tours in support of a slate of candidates running as Republican in the 1916 state elections. To the amazement of the whole country NPL candidate, farmer Lynn Frazier was elected governor with 75% of the vote and both houses of the Legislature were won.
With legislative majorities increased in the election of 1918 Frazer pushed through a sweeping reform program including the establishment of North Dakota Mill and Elevator and the Bank of North Dakota as state-run enterprises; the proposed establishment of a state owned railroad; a graduated state income tax that distinguished between earned and unearned income; a state hail insurance fund; a workmen's compensation fund that assessed employers were established; and popular recall of elected officials.
The success of the Non-Partisan League spread to surrounding states and into neighboring Canada. There were even attempts to transform it into a national political party.
The Craigs were enthusiastic supporters of the NPL and Minnie was active in support of agitation to approve the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote which passed the NPL controlled legislature on December 1, 1919.
But corporate forces were not sitting by idly as their power was threatened. During World War I Frazer had been critical of the war as a manipulation of “big-bellied, red-necked plutocrats” and argued for a “conscription of wealth” if it was going to be pursued with a conscription of young men. He was careful not to advocate resistance to the war effort, however, which was landing many leading opponents in jail, including Socialist leader Eugen V. Debs. Although this position was popular among the large numbers of German-American farmers of North Dakota, corporate interests flooded the state with propaganda accusing Frazer and the NPL of treason.
More over the end of the war triggered an agricultural depression caused in no small measure by a glut of grain produced as a result of the Wilson Administration’s fencepost-to-fence-post war time production policies. Collapsed prices put pressure on the barely up and running new state enterprises and commercial bankers refused to issue loans to carry them over what everyone knew was a temporary emergency.
Using the very tool of popular recall introduced by the NPL and a massively expensive campaign funded almost entirely out of the Twin Cities, Frazer was ousted from office in 1921—the first and only sitting governor recalled until California’s Gray Davis in 2003.
It was after this low point that Minnie Craig stepped up to the plate. In 1922, just three years after women won the vote, her friends and neighbors elected her to the state House of Representatives from the 20th District.
She entered the house as a minority member, but quickly gained the respect of most members as a diligent member well versed in all issues. In her latter terms she rose to leadership in the NPL caucus. A member noted in 1927:
Mrs. M. Craig watches every move that is made and is ready to blast any presumptuous member with that cold, withering glance that the members know so well and dread so much.
She became President of the NPL and began the long, careful process of rebuilding its state-wide strength. Craig also served two terms as the North Dakota’s Republican National Committee Woman, although becoming increasingly despairing of her national party’s conservatism.
In no small way due to Minnie Craig’s work—and the national tide that swept Franklin Roosevelt into the White House—the NPL returned to power in North Dakota. William “Wild Bill” Langer was elected the new Governor and the NPL won control of the legislature.
For the opening session of 1933, the House had to assemble in the Bismarck Civic Auditorium because the old state capitol building had been destroyed in a 1930 fire and its modern high-rise replacement was delayed in completion by repeated strikes due to out-going Governor George F. Shafer’s insistence on paying construction workers only 30 cents an hour. The state was in the grips of a deep agricultural Depression. The session met in an atmosphere of emergency.
Craig, the past minority leader, was the natural choice for Speaker. It was no symbolic gesture. She took firm control of the House and supported Governor Langer’s measures to deal with the economic emergency.
She did not stand for re-election in 1934 but retired from the House after twelve years and six terms of service. But her work for the people of North Dakota was not over.
Craig had come to admire FDR’s New Deal and recognized it as supporting many of the NPL’s long held goals. She accepted an appointment as a regional supervisor of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration which kicked into high gear when the agricultural depression was compounded by drought and Dust Bowl conditions.
In 1935 she left the administration and became Assistant Clerk of the House she once led. In the 1937 and ’39 sessions she was Chief Clerk. Following her husband, she also became chief of two small rural banks which tried to provide local credit to struggling farmers.
After her final retirement in 1940 the Craig’s moved to California. She began a hand written draft of her auto-biography but abandoned it in 1947 on the day her beloved husband died. She returned to her home town of Phillips, Maine in 1959 and died in nearby Farmington on July 6, 1966 at the age of 82.
As for the Non-Partisan League, despite its original affiliations with progressive Republicans, the organization drifted steadily to the Democrats during the New Deal years and after. In 1959 it officially was absorbed into the state Democratic Party which is still officially known as the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party and the NPL retains its own Executive Committee within the party organization.
Minnie Craig did leave advice for other women seeking a political career:
There’s a field—a grand one for women—in politics, but women must...play politics as women and not as weak imitations of their ‘lords and masters.’ Men are all to inclined to ‘stuff’ a lady full of nonsense, treat her with not too much respect for her intellect and be far happier when she’s nicely tucked away in some corner where she can do them no harm—and herself no good. But it doesn’t have to be that way.... She has certain natural talents which men don’t have. Women are naturally given to detail...If they weren’t, they couldn’t make pies or sew dresses. Men don’t like details. Because of woman’s training...she’s more thorough than man and right there she has a splendid opportunity for politics.