Telling Alaska’s Story: When Alaskan women got the vote

Alaska's territorial legislature gave white Alaskan women the right to vote on March 21, 1913, seven years before the right was awarded to women nationally.
Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 6:48 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska was ahead of its time when it signed a bill on March 21, 1913 giving most women the right to vote, joining nine other Western states that had previously approved women’s suffrage.

Alaska was a territory when, in 1912, Congress authorized the newly formed territorial legislature to decide whether to allow women to vote. Barbara Hood, who is editing the extensive research on the subject done by the late historian Beverly Beeton, said several women stand out in promoting the path to women’s suffrage in Alaska.

Nellie Cashman was a well known miner and businesswoman who is credited as the first Alaskan woman to vote, although Hood said that she did so a bit earlier than she should have.

“Apparently news didn’t travel too fast up to those camps, but they had heard that Congress had done something to authorize suffrage,” Hood said. “So when the election happened in August of 1912, she marched into the voting booth and voted, and nobody in Nolan Creek was going to tell Nellie Cashman she couldn’t vote. I mean she was a prominent local person and two other women marched in right behind her and voted and that was it. They voted, and they were the first to vote, and it was a year before it was legal, but nobody seemed to be too upset about it.”

There were soon two other women active in the national suffrage movement who found themselves in Alaska. Cornelia Jewett Hatcher and Lena Morrow Lewis gathered signatures to urge the territorial legislature to pass a bill, but it may not have needed much convincing. House Bill 2 was introduced, passed and signed by the governor in just 11 days, becoming the first bill ever passed by the newly formed territorial legislature.

It was passed seven years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote nationwide.

While the bill was considered progressive, it did not allow all women to vote. It specified that women must be citizens, which excluded a big part of the state’s population, according to State Historian Katherine Ringsmuth.

“Alaska Native women could not vote,” said Ringsmuth. “In fact, Native People could not vote until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act.

Ringsmuth said the fight for Native rights continued, citing the example of the state’s Antidiscrimination Bill passed in 1945, nearly 10 years before Brown v. Board of Education would end racial segregation in public schools in the rest of the country.

“We talk a lot about Alaska being the last of someone else’s history, but in many ways we see these examples of Alaska actually taking the lead ahead of the rest of the country,” she said.

Ringsmuth said Alaska’s early passage of the voting bill paved the way for many women to follow.

“We have had a female governor; we have a female U.S. senator, we have a female university president,” she said. “... Days like this are important because they remind us of how we got here and it’s a good opportunity to remember our past and our history.”

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