Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of May Billinghurst, 1863-1946

By Kelly Kirk, Black Hills State University, Spearfish, SD

Born in Wisconsin in 1863, May Bowman moved to Dakota Territory in 1879, residing first in Watertown, then eventually becoming one of the original settlers of the town of Ashton. She married Charles Bryan Billinghurst in 1887 and they had two children. Charles Billinghurst had been a banker in Ashton, then became co-owner of the State Publishing Company in Pierre, where the couple would make their home for years.

It was in Pierre that May would invest her time in a multitude of civic organizations, including the Rebekah Lodge, the Federation of Women's Clubs, and became heavily involved in the state's woman suffrage movement. This included becoming the superintendent for the northwestern division of the State Universal Franchise League. During the lead up to the 1914 vote, May emphasized desiring official organization in every county, creating a more focused and directed campaign. However, even before women had the right to vote in South Dakota, May's leadership and participation in civic organizations was recognized by Governor Crawford in 1908 to represent the state at the International Mothers' Congress in Washington DC.

Outside of campaigning for woman suffrage, May also participated in the creation of a woman's party that was committed to putting women into official office, regardless of access to the ballot. This organization was very clear in stating it was not a suffrage organization, they wanted women to hold government offices. To achieve this, May was a member of the committee to meet with the party president and develop a name and platform for this women's party. They also put in a request to Governor Vessey to name a woman to the state board of charities and corrections.

Once woman suffrage had been passed in the state, May's civic roles were once again recognized by the Hughes County Republicans when, at a Republican meeting in December 1919, she was “selected for nomination as a member of the lower house of the legislature.”

May continued to work with the state in various capacities after the passage of woman suffrage, including working as a clerk in the Secretary of State's office in the state capitol. She passed away in June of 1946 in Miller, South Dakota, at the age of 82.


“Dakota Women are After the Offices.” Forest City Press, (Forest City, S.D.), Feb. 23, 1911, pg. 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

“Delegates Appointed.” The Mitchell Capital, (Mitchell, S.D.), Feb. 28, 1908, pg. 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

“Delegates Attending State Federation.” The Weekly Pioneer Times, (Deadwood, S.D.), Oct. 22, 1914, pg. 3.

“The Grand Lodge.” Pierre Weekly Free Press, (Pierre, S.D.), May 23, 1907, pg. 4. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

“May Bowman Billinghurst.” Find A Grave. Last edited March 24, 2012,

“Memorial Day Parade at Watertown, May 29.”Argus Leader, (Sioux Falls, S.D.), May 18, 1914, pg. 8.

“Rites for Dakota Pioneer Tuesday.” Argus Leader, (Sioux Falls, S.D.), June 24, 1946, pg. 2,

“Select Woman for Place in State Legislature.” The Argus Leader, (Sioux Falls, S.D.), Dec. 26, 1919, pg. 3.

“State Suffragets to have Paper Organ, (sic).” The Mitchell Capital, (Mitchell, S.D.), Sept. 4 1913, pg. 7. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

“Suffrage Plan.” The Madison Daily Leader, (Madison, S.D.), June 17, 1914, pg. 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

U.S. Census. Year: 1910; Census Place: Pierre Ward 4, Hughes, South Dakota; Roll: T624_1482; Page: 13A; Enumeration District: 0229; FHL microfilm: 1375495. Found at

U.S. Census. Year: 1930; Census Place: Pierre, Hughes, South Dakota; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 0015; FHL microfilm: 2341958. Found at

“Woman Organize.” Pierre Weekly Free Press, (Pierre, S.D.), Feb. 16, 1911, pg. 4. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

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