Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Susie Bird, 1863-1943
By Ryne Verschoor, student & Molly P. Rozum, Associate Professor, University of South Dakota
Susannah "Susie" Bird, one of eight children, was born on 17 September 1863 in Minnesota to Joseph Bird, originally from England, and Susannah J. Bellows Bird, originally from Vermont. It is not clear when Bird moved to western South Dakota, but she graduated from the Spearfish Normal School (Black Hills Teachers College) in 1891 and was soon hired to teach "in the primary department" in the Sturgis schools system. Family may have pulled her to Dakota. One of her brothers lived in Deadwood and two sisters and a brother-in-law lived on a ranch in the Belle Fourche Valley, where she too homesteaded land. Another brother and sister-in-law lived in western North Dakota. Soon after her father died, in 1899, Bird's mother moved in with her in Sturgis. Bird's activism started with commitments to Black Hills regional and statewide associations of County Superintendents, education experts, Sunday School advocates, and Congregational church leaders.
Bird entered "public life" by running for the office of county superintendent of public instruction. South Dakota women had limited school suffrage rights as early as 1879 and although they could not vote for office, women could be elected to various education-related positions. The state's 1889 constitution also allowed women to run for the statewide office of superintendent of public instruction. Bird ran first in 1896 for Meade County superintendent on a fusion ticket of "gold democrats" and republicans planning to do "anything to down the pops" or Populists. She had been interested in politics since her graduation from Normal School in 1891, when she critiqued the population for "inattention" to the needs of "farmers and labors, the lifeblood of this land," which allowed those she did not support to assume "the control of our government." In 1898, she ran for the same office on a Republican ticket. Meade County elected her as superintendent for at least two terms. By 1904, Bird taught in Belle Fourche, in neighboring Butte County, and ran for county superintendent in 1906 against a female incumbent. She ran again in 1908 and served as superintendent for at least two terms. In 1913, Belle Fourche residents elected her to the school board. In 1915, the Perkins County superintendent of schools hired Bird has her assistant.
Susie Bird emerges in the South Dakota suffrage movement soon after the reorganization of the state association into the South Dakota Universal Franchise League (SDUFL). Bird took a position leading SDUFL's Northwest district but resigned for unknown reasons in the summer of 1912. Reverend Nina Pettigrew, also of Belle Fourche, then agreed to organize the district. When family illness in early 1914 forced Pettigrew to resign, Bird again took the reins. Pettigrew lauded Bird's experience in education, her "pleasing and effective" speaking skills, and her "wide acquaintance in this suffrage district." "Always a friend of the suffrage cause," Pettigrew explained, Bird had spent the summer of 1913 "on the Pacific Coast," where she quickly noted "the beneficial effects of the ballot on the women" who had voting rights; Washington women secured suffrage in 1910, California's in 1911, and Oregon's in 1912. Bird "came home enthusiastic, and ready to do all in her power to help win" the 1914 South Dakota referendum. She helped Lemmon, the largest town in the state's far northwest, organize a suffrage branch. Bird calculated she travelled by team and wagon and automobile some 1,000 miles that summer and reportedly spoke to many majority male audiences. Although Susie Bird surely continued to support woman suffrage, 1914 seems to have been the height of her advocacy.
Bird remained on the advisory board of SDUFL in late 1915, but in 1916, as women in South Dakota worked to pass what became the fifth defeated woman suffrage referendum, she emerged as a candidate for office. Bird agreed to run for state superintendent of public instruction on a "minority ticket" organized by progressive Republican Richard O. Richards, though there was little chance of winning office or even getting to a primary vote. Richards, candidate for governor, formed his slate to challenge the state legislature's 1915 repeal of the complicated primary law he authored. The South Dakota Secretary of State refused to recognize the 1916 minority ticket, which included Bird, because the state's supreme court had validated the legislature's right to repeal. Richards, however, hoped (unsuccessfully) his ticket might attract the U.S. Supreme Court to his case. Bird may have left the state soon after or before the successful 1918 referendum on citizenship voting that enfranchised South Dakota's women.
By the 1920s, Susie Bird lived in Santa Cruz, California, with her sister; several of her sisters and two brothers eventually lived in California. She may have taught in the state for a time. Bird worked the polls in her precinct in 1924, but her primary organizational commitment in the 1930s seems to have been the Daughters of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. Susie Bird died on 2 March 1943 in Santa Cruz.
Image of Susie Bird from Black Hills State University Archives, Leland D. Case Library, https://explore.digitalsd.org/digital/collection/bhsuarchive/id/64/.
"Annual Meeting Black Hills Association of Congregational Churches and Ministers Here." Leady Daily Call, South Dakota, 29 Oct 1910, p 1.
"Belle Fourche." Lead Daily Call, South Dakota, 16 Apr 1913, p. 5.
Berdahl, Clarence A. "The Richards Primary." American Political Science Review 14, no. 1 (Feb 1920), pp. 93-105, esp. 95.
"Black Hills School Superintendents." Rapid City Journal, South Dakota, 28 Dec 1901, p.1.
"Black Hills Sunday School Workers to Co-operate with the State." Lead Daily Call, South Dakota, 26 Sep 1910, p. 1.
California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics, California Death Index, 1940-1997, Sacramento, CA, USA, database on-line, Ancestry.com.
Clow, Richmond L. "In Search of the People's Voice: Richard Olsen Richards and Progressive Reform." South Dakota History 10, no. 1 (Winter 1979): 39-58, esp. 51-54.
"D. of U.V. Hold Interesting Meeting." Santa Cruz Evening News, California, 25 Feb 1930, p. 4.
"D.U.V. Civil War Hear Convention Reports." Santa Cruz Sentinel, California, 13 Jun 1939, p. 5.
"Death at Belle Fourche." Dickinson Press, North Dakota, 4 Feb 1911, p. 9.
"Educational Association." Black Hills Weekly Journal, Rapid City, South Dakota, 2 Dec 1898, p. 2.
"Former Butte School Head Dies." Rapid City Journal, South Dakota, 12 Mar 1943, p. 6.
"For Richards Ticket Declines Filing on Statement South Dakota Not Working Under that Law." Pierre Weekly Free Press, South Dakota, 9 Mar 1916, p. 6.
"Fruitdale News." Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, South Dakota, 26 Apr 1914, p. 2.
"Fusion in Meade County." Black Hills Union, Rapid City, South Dakota, 11 Sep 1896, Image 5.
"Girls' Campaign in Butte." Minneapolis Journal, Minnesota, 8 Oct 1906, p. 11.
"Government Wants the Land And is Contesting the Desert Land Entry of Susie Bird." Rapid City Journal, 18 Mar 1909, p. 1.
"Harry Bird Dies in Santa Cruz." Santa Cruz Sentinel, 11 Jun 1942, p. 2.
"Land Office." Black Hills Weekly Journal, Rapid City, South Dakota, 29 Aug 1890, p. 4; 30 Jun 1893, p. 1.
Jones, Ruth Page. "'The Women Voted': School Suffrage in Dakota Territory and South Dakota." In Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains, edited by Lori Ann Lahlum and Molly P. Rozum, 191-217. Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2019, pp. 202-205.
"List of Superintendents." Black Hills Union, Rapid City, South Dakota, 17 Nov. 1908, p. 1.
Mead, Rebecca J. How The Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914. New York: New York University Press, 2004, pp. 101, 119.
"Meade County Convention." Weekly Pioneer-Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 4 Oct 1900, p. 5.
"Meade County Republicans." Black Hills Weekly Journal, Rapid City, South Dakota, 30 Sep 1898, p. 1.
"Mrs. John L. Pyle Again Suffrage President." Forest City Press, South Dakota, 24 Nov 1915, Image 2.
"Mrs. Kroft Chooses her Assistant Superintendent." Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 4 Jan 1915, p. 2.
"Nominates a Ticket." Dakota Farmers' Leader, Canton, South Dakota, 14 Jan 1917, p. 2.
"Notice of Selection of Polling Places." Santa Cruz Evening News, California, 17 Oct. 1924, p. 8.
"Program for the South Dakota Educational Association." Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 9 Dec 1902, p. 4.
Reed, Dorinda Riessen. The Woman Suffrage Movement in South Dakota, 2nd ed. Pierre, South Dakota: South Dakota Commission on the Status of Women, 1975 , pp. 53, 65, 80, 86.
"Spearfish Alumni." Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, South Dakota, 20 Jun 1899, p. 5.
"State Normal School." Black Hills Union, Rapid City, South Dakota, 19 Jun 1991, p. 2.
"State Ticket Named at Richard's Conference." Citizen-Republican, Scotland, South Dakota, 6 Apr 1916, p. 6.
"Susannah 'Susie' Bird." Find a Grave database, www.findagrave.com.
"Susie Brid Dies Here On Tuesday." Santa Cruz Sentinel, California, 3 Mar 1943, p. 4.
"Suffrage League Formed At Lemmon." Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 8 Jul 1914, p. 6.
"These Graduated." Black Hills Weekly Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 12 Jun 1891, p. 4.
United States of America, Bureau of the Census, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1930, database on-line, Ancestry.com. [also spelled Susana or Susanna H.]
Untitled. Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 6 Jul 1903, p. 4.
Untitled. Sturgis Advertiser, South Dakota, 18 Jun 1891, Image 4.
"Woman's Suffrage News." Lemmon Herald, South Dakota, 27 Mar 1914, Image 3.