Voters in North Dakota elected the first woman in the nation as administrator of a statewide office.
When Laura Eisenhuth was elected as North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction in 1892, all of the women in this country had very few voting privileges. In North Dakota, women could only vote on school matters.
Therefore, the only statewide office for which they could cast their ballot was state school superintendent. Eisenhuth correctly reasoned that if the franchise was open to women for this office, why couldn’t a woman be the state’s chief education executive?
In 1890, she was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for state superintendent and received 45 percent of the votes in the general election. In 1892, Eisenhuth was endorsed by both the Democratic and Populist parties and was elected with 53 percent of the votes.
Many people feared that if a woman was elected to a high office, the world would never be the same. Consequently, the 1892 election in North Dakota for state superintendent received national coverage.
Laura J. Kelly was born May 29, 1859, at Blenheim, Ontario, to Thomas and Anna Kelly. In 1863, the Kellys moved to DeWitt, Iowa.
After getting her college degree, Laura Kelly became a teacher at DeWitt High School. In June 1885, she made her first trip to Dakota Territory and filed a pre-emption claim to 160 acres near New Rockford. In the fall, she resumed her teaching position at DeWitt and then returned to her homestead the following two summers.
In the fall of 1887, she married Willis Eisenhuth, who owned a drug store in Carrington. Prior to coming to Dakota Territory in 1882, Eisenhuth had been a teacher at his hometown in Millheim, Pa.
Shortly after her marriage and move to Carrington, the town’s school was facing a crisis. The only teacher resigned one month into the school year and they had no replacement. Since she had 11 years of experience in the classroom, the school board persuaded her to fill-in on a short term basis until they could find another teacher.
None were to be found, and consequently, Eisenhuth taught 80 students in a one-room school for the whole school year. She also taught the next year but was provided an assistant. To accommodate the large number of students, classes were held in a nearby church.
In 1889, Eisenhuth was elected superintendent of Foster County and re-elected the following year. In 1890, she was appointed state institute conductor and presided over eight teacher institutes in the northern part of the state. That same year she was endorsed by the Democratic Party to run for North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Eisenhuth lost in the general election and then continued her work as institute conductor, putting on workshops in southern North Dakota.
In 1892, Eisenhuth was endorsed by both the Democratic and Populist parties to run against the Republican candidate, Joseph M. Devine, for superintendent. Devine was a well-respected educator from LaMoure who later served as governor in 1898.
When the ballots were counted in November, Eisenhuth received 19,078 and Devine received 17,343.
When she took office in January 1893, her first action was to appoint a deputy superintendent. She selected W. R. Bierly from Grand Forks, but her nomination was turned down by Gov. Eli Shortridge.
Some members of the press believed that a “war” existed between Shortridge and Eisenhuth but, in reality, it appeared to be nothing more than bitterness between Shortridge and Bierly over some issues involving the Jamestown mental hospital.
In early February, Eisenhuth nominated her husband, Willis, as deputy superintendent, and Shortridge quickly accepted her nominee. The Eisenhuths purchased a home in Bismarck and became close friends with the Shortridges. The two couples went on camping trips together.
Eisenhuth continued to emphasize professional development and conducted many institutes (teacher workshops) herself. Her ambitious goals of building new schools and improving the conditions of other schools were curtailed because of the Panic of 1893, which adversely affected the economy of North Dakota.
Eisenhuth received another major blow when her husband became very ill in October and had to be sent back to his family in Pennsylvania to try to recuperate. When he did return to North Dakota, he spent long periods of time at a hospital in Jamestown.
In 1894, when Eisenhuth ran for re-election, she was challenged and defeated by Emma Bates, the Republican candidate.
Largely because of the poor health of her husband necessitating prolonged periods of hospitalization, the Eisenhuths suffered extreme financial hardships. They lost the Carrington newspaper he founded, their drug store, and their Bismarck home and all its possessions because of unpaid county taxes.
Eisenhuth ran for superintendent of public instruction in 1896 and again in 1900 but was unsuccessful. After her husband died in May 1902, she went back to teaching in Carrington in the fall of that year. In 1907, she married Ludwig Alming and, in 1909, they moved to Jacksonville in southwestern Oregon where they operated a fruit farm.
She died on Sept. 30, 1937.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen by e-mail at email@example.com)