Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Lydia Bernhardian Johnson, 1875-1949

By Kendra Brewer, student, and Molly P. Rozum, Associate Professor, University of South Dakota

Lydia Bernhardina Johnson worked for woman suffrage and to secure broad equal rights in law for women in South Dakota. Johnson was born in Ludvika, Sweden on 6 March 1875 to Jacob E. and Caroline U. Carlsson. The family immigrated to West Superior, Wisconsin, where she attended elementary school and graduated high school in 1896. At the University of Minnesota Johnson earned a Bachelor of Literature in 1900, after which she taught for a time in Barnesville, Minnesota. She married Julius H. Johnson on 19 June 1901 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The couple moved to Iowa, where he earned a law degree from University of Iowa in 1901 and practiced law in Clinton. The couple moved to the Pierre area around 1904 and by then had their only child, a daughter Charlotte Amelia born in 1902. After reading law with her husband (and spending some part of a year in Vermillion at the University of South Dakota Law School) Johnson earned a law degree in 1912 and became the first woman member of the South Dakota Bar Association. Under her entry in the law school's 1913 Coyote Yearbook, is the quote, "A woman's worst enemy is her tongue." She and her husband practiced law together in Pierre and Fort Pierre. In 1945, she became the first woman state's attorney.

Johnson's first recorded activity on behalf of South Dakota's suffrage movement involved lobbying the legislature on behalf of woman suffrage and prohibition in 1907. She served as president of the South Dakota Equal Suffrage Association from 1909-1910. In support of the third (failed) full woman suffrage referendum to be voted on by the South Dakota electorate in 1910, she toured the state with Helen La Reine Baker, who at the time served as the vice president of the Spokane Equal Suffrage Club and was known to be a "champion of militant methods." Most importantly, while practicing law full time, Johnson provided legal advice to the South Dakota Universal Franchise League led by Mary ("Mamie") Shields Pyle in the last decade of the woman suffrage movement to 1918, when the South Dakota electorate successfully voted in equal suffrage.

Johnson, who affiliated as Lutheran, joined and held leadership positions in numerous service organizations, including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) and the South Dakota Legislative Council of Women for which she served as president in 1920. She lectured across the state on many different social issues besides woman suffrage, such as child labor and the minimum wage. A charter membership in the Fort Pierre Woman's Club led her to the position of corresponding secretary for the South Dakota Federation of Women's Clubs from 1906 to 1908. From 1908 until 1910, Johnson served as the president of the state Federation. She worked on the legal standing of women and children, drafted a bill for the state legislature on property rights equity in inheritance laws in marriage, and advocated for vision and hearing tests for school children. Johnson chaired the Woman's Branch of Progressive Party of South Dakota and in 1912 and a national committee selected her as a Progressive Party campaign speaker. She toured Europe in 1921 and 1922 speaking on world peace and United States Constitutional issues and touring Sweden on behalf of the W.C.T.U. In 1920, she served as a speaker for the National Republican Committee.

Lydia B. Johnson died on 23 August 1949.

A photograph of Lydia B. Johnson can be found in the 1913 Coyote Yearbook, p. 110.



"Admitted to Bar," Dakota Farmers' Leader, Canton, South Dakota 21 June 1912, p. 2.

Collier, Catlin F. "Ladies of the Bar: Women Lawyers in South Dakota, 1890-1950." Unpublished paper, n.d. In possession of the University of South Dakota Law School, Vermillion, South Dakota.

Coyote Yearbook. Vermillion: University of South Dakota, 1913, p. 10.

Fox, Lawrence K. Who's Who Among South Dakotans: A Biographical Directory, vol. 1. Pierre: Statewide Service Company, 1924-1925, p. 106.

"Guest at Pierre," Lead Daily Call, Lead South Dakota, 12 Oct. 1909, p. 1.

"Hold Momentous Meeting Women At the Capital," Rapid City Journal, 30 Jan. 1919, p. 1.

Johnson, Lydia to Mamie Shields Pyle, 21 September 1918, box 3, Mamie Shields Pyle Papers, University of South Dakota Archives and Special Collections, Vermillion.

Kingsbury, George Washington. History of Dakota Territory, Vol. 3 (Yankton, South Dakota: Yankton College, 1915), p. 939.

Kingsbury, George Washington. History of Dakota Territory, Vol. 5 (Yankton, South Dakota: Yankton College, 1915), pp. 34-37.

Leonard, John W. Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915 (New York: American Commonwealth, 1914), p. 436. [LINK]

"Lydia B. Johnson, S.D. Lawyer, Dies," Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 23 Aug. 1949, p. 2.

"Many After Job," Pierre Weekly Free Press, Pierre, South Dakota, 19 Dec. 1912, p. 1.

Meeks, Donald Norman. "A History of the University of South Dakota School of Law." M.A. thesis, University of South Dakota, 1967.

O'Keefe Easton, Patricia. "Woman Suffrage in South Dakota: The Final Decade, 1911-1920." South Dakota History 13, no. 3 (1983), pp. 206-226.

Pierre Weekly Free Press, Pierre, South Dakota, 21 Oct. 1912, p. 3; 13 Jun. 1918, p. 5.

"Pioneer Philip Attorney Dies in Pierre Hospital," Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, South Dakota, 23 Aug. 1949, p. 4.

Reed, Dorinda Riessen, The Woman Suffrage Movement in South Dakota (Pierre: Commission on the Status of Women, 1975 [1958]), pp. 55-56.

Robinson, Doane. South Dakota. Chicago: American Historical Society, Inc., 1930, pp194-196.

Saturday News, Watertown, South Dakota, 14 Nov. 1912, p. 4.

"State Federation of Women's Clubs," Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, Deadwood, South Dakota 10 Oct. 1920, p. 1.

South Dakota Bar Journal, vol. 43, no. 3 (January 1950), p. 42.

"Women's Clubs," Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 31 Aug. 1908, p. 2.

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