The Crusading Elizabeth Preston Anderson
The following recreated news stories from The North Star Dakotan explore the nature of North Dakota progressivism and the rise and fall of the state’s political boss.
The quotations of Anderson are from “Under the Prairie Wings,” her unpublished autobiography in the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University.
Valley City, 1915
Elizabeth Preston Anderson has been working against evil and injustice all her years in North Dakota. She is small in stature but big in fighting spirit. She has led crusades against liquor and for women’s right to vote. When there’s a debate about these issues, she’s in the middle of it.
Born in 1861 at Decatur, Indiana, where her father was an itinerant preacher, Anderson was well educated at DePauw University, Taylor University, and the University of Minnesota.
She began teaching school when she was only 15 years old and taught in Page and Sanborn after her family moved to Dakota Territory in 1880. In her twenties she joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the WCTU, which was leading the movement to place a prohibition clause in what would become the state’s constitution. She argued and still argues that the drinking of alcoholic beverages leads to the destruction of the mind and the decay of the family.
Although she was very disappointed that the delegates did not place a prohibition clause in the Constitution, she was overjoyed when the voters approved prohibition in a special vote in 1889. The WCTU and Elizabeth Preston had won the day!
After the success of the anti-liquor vote, she has continued her zealous efforts to keep North Dakota “dry.” In 1893 she was elected president of the North Dakota WCTU — an office she has kept for all these years and uses to take up other causes.
Soon after becoming the WCTU’s president, she began the campaign for the suffrage movement — women’s right to vote. She lobbied the legislature and spoke out across the state on behalf of suffrage. With a Quaker heritage, she was and remains a fierce advocate for equal rights. She believes in the Quaker idea that men and women must be equal in home, church, and state.
In 1901 she married Reverend James Anderson, a Methodist minister, who served churches throughout North Dakota. He shares her beliefs and supports her work.
She has lobbied each legislative session for women’s suffrage since 1893, and just this year was able to convince both houses of the legislature to approve a suffrage measure. She is angry and disappointed that political trickery defeated the bill in the end. But she will not give up the battle.
Elizabeth Preston Anderson is a reformer who wants to make North Dakota a better place to live. She has fought to keep Sunday a holy day and she and the WCTU have been successful in pressuring the legislature into passing measures to control smoking, “impure” literature, pool halls, and other vices, as defined by Anderson.
Her life is dedicated to change — change, which she believes with all her heart, will improve society.
You are known in North Dakota as an enemy of alcohol. Have you yourself ever experienced the effects of liquor?
When I had a nervous breakdown in the early eighties, my physician prescribed alcoholic liquor as a stimulant. In those days, even doctors did not recognize alcohol as a narcotic. After several weeks, I found myself watching the clock in my desire for the next dose of medicine. I did not know then that alcohol was a habit-forming drug. My schooling and most of my teaching was done before the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had secured the passage of laws providing for the teaching of scientific temperance in the schools. However, a few weeks of the “medication” awakened me to what I might expect if it were continued. I immediately stopped taking it, and when I told my doctor why, he laughed uproariously. It was a joke to him, but I had learned a great lesson.
Was there any incident or incidents that especially influenced you to take up the battle for prohibition?
The window of my hotel room at Page, where I was later teaching, faced the back door of the town saloon. Men brought in their farm products to sell in order to buy fuel and groceries. After all the money had been spent in the saloon, they were frequently kicked out of the back door, while wife and children waited at home often in sub-zero weather for fuel and food. One morning, looking out of my hotel room window, I saw lying beneath it the form of a young man. The sun was shining in his face, over which the flies were crawling, and his mouth was opened. He looked very young—some mother’s boy! I was shaken with anger that a state or municipality should license a business that would turn a young man with great possibilities for the future into this creature, helpless, and as senseless as the clod upon which he was lying. As long as this business was allowed to continue, the degradation and demoralization of souls, created in God’s image, would be the result. I looked at my boys in the school room that morning, bright, eager youngsters, and wondered who of them would be victims of this licensed and protected monster. It was then and there that my call to service took its directions.
Would you give us an example of how anti-suffrage politicians, all men of course, were able through trickery to work against you and the movement?
In 1893, a suffrage bill passed the Senate and came up in the House for final action on the last day of the session. I spoke on the measure, which passed by a constitutional majority. Then came a most spectacular fight. The Speaker of the House refused to sign the bill. Governor Shortridge said he could sign it into law without the Speaker’s signature because it had passed both Senate and the House. Men were placed in the halls and outside the doors of the Governor’s office to prevent the bill reaching him. For several hours the bill was “lost.” The Senate “found” it and voted down several requests from the House for its return. Senator LaMoure made a successful motion to instruct the president of the Senate to sign no more House bills until the Speaker of the House signed the suffrage bill. But many important measures were pending, and as the hour of final adjournment drew near. In the end, the Senate voted to return the bill to the House. The House voted to expunge the records, so there is nothing in the Journal of the House to show that woman suffrage passed both houses in 1893. Similar tactics were employed throughout the long struggle.
You and the WCTU have campaigned for other moral causes. What have been your successes?
The law defining intoxicating liquor was strengthened at almost every session; the age of consent was raised to eighteen years; the penalty for Sabbath breaking increased; laws providing for physical education in the public schools; an annual temperance day in the public schools; freeing public dining rooms, restaurants, and cafes from the smoking nuisance; prohibiting the sale of Copenhagen snuff; prohibiting the manufacture, sales, and advertising of cigarettes and cigarette papers. Today other measures which the WCTU helped to win were as follows: repeal of the ninety days divorce law; prohibiting child labor; for juvenile courts; prohibiting impure literature; prohibiting the advertising of intoxicating liquors in the newspapers of the state; prohibiting Sunday baseball, Sunday theaters and moving picture shows; prohibition of bawdy houses; law to stamp out venereal disease; law defining and prohibiting prostitution, anti-gambling law; abolishing the public drinking cup; providing for state inspection of pool halls and for state enforcement of prohibition, pool hall, anti-cigarettes and anti-gambling laws.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.