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​Our opinion: A glimpse of women from North Dakota history

by Sabrina Hornung | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Editorial | March 27th, 2019

As March roared in like a lion, it appears that it’s leaving a lamb in this final week. Along with that observation we’d like to point out that it’s the final week of Women’s History -- or rather HERstory month. According to womenshistorymonth.gov, the intent is “to amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and to inspire the future.”

Let’s take a moment to think about a few things we’ve learned about North Dakota women in history.

Last July we spoke to Dr. Joseph Stuart, associate professor of history at the University of Mary in Bismarck. He led a project in which his class transcribed a number of letters lent to his class from the state archives. The letters were from the front lines of World War One in observance of the centennial marking the end of WWI, also known at the time as the “war to end all wars.”

In his research, he was impressed to find North Dakota’s involvement in the medical division, particularly the role of a number of North Dakota women in the medical division.

“North Dakota had the highest percentage of registered nurses to volunteer of any state in the country. Twenty percent of the RNs volunteering to be in the conflict performed heroic feats taking care of 'the boys.’ Many were really motivated out of a sense of wanting to take care of them and mother them in a sense,” he said.

Last March we spoke with Allison Veselka over at the Barnes County Historical Museum in Valley City regarding her ongoing research on North Dakota women at war. She said, “They faced a great number of challenges, such as discrimination. Just because they were women they were thought to be inferior and unable to perform the jobs/tasks that men held. These women proved them wrong by undertaking these tasks and being phenomenal at them.”

Her research didn’t just include women in military service, but also women participating in the war effort on the home front in government jobs and defense work in shipyards and factories. “Rosie the Riveter” was alive and well on the prairie.

Veselka came across two women from Barnes County who were connected to the Nuremberg trials. Harriet Zetterberg Margolies was a graduate of Valley City High School, class of 1927, and from there she went on to study law.

“During the early years of WWII, she was attached to the legal division of the Economic Warfare Division, a section of the State Department. She was sent overseas to England in 1944 with the Economic Warfare Division. That same year she married Daniel Margolies, who also worked with the War Crimes Commission.” Veselka said.

“In 1945, Harriet was transferred to War Crimes Commission where she was in charge of building a case against Hans Frank, Governor of Poland, and Julius Streicher. She built her testimony by going through the actual speeches and writings of these men.”

She went on to say, “When the time came to present her case at the Nuremberg trials, Harriet Margolies couldn’t, as she was a woman. I have a picture of her sitting beside the man who read her brief. It must have been frustrating, putting all of that hard work into this and not being able to present.”

Veselka’s work is currently on view at the Barnes County Museum in downtown Valley City. Along with her research, you will also see the largest collection of women’s military uniforms in the state.

The Tri-County Tourism Alliance and Germans from Russia Heritage Collection released a book in 2017 called, “Women Behind the Plow.” The book consists of a number of interviews and anecdotes from women sharing their experiences about life on the farm. Many of these women worked alongside their husbands in the field as well as taking care of the children.

Prairie Public recently began production of a documentary expanding on the stories and memories from more than 20 women in south-central North Dakota last summer: “Women Behind the Plow,” deep in the heart of German Russia country. We look forward to its release. The photos and interviews from the book were also used in a traveling photo exhibit of the same name.

Another book we’d recommend is “Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota.” Through interviews, land records, letters, and diaries, this book tells the story of the women homesteaders of North Dakota. Some were barely in their 20s, others well into their 60s. They came from various ethnic and economic backgrounds; you just had to be the head of your own household.

According to http://plainshumanities.unl.edu, “Women who were single, widowed, divorced, or deserted were eligible to acquire 160 acres of federal land in their own name. The law discriminated against women who were married. A married woman was not allowed to take land in her own name unless she was considered the head of the household.”

We could go on for days celebrating and singing the praises of the badass women of antiquity in our region. Looking forward, we can’t help but wonder how the story of women from our era will be written by future historians. How will they view events like the Women’s March or #metoo or the misogyny of Trump’s America?

Until then we’re writing our own story. Keep up the good work, ladies! 

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