19th Amendment at 100: Mary Louise Bottineau Baldwin

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, but this landmark event was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for women and their struggle for the right to vote. Join us in 2020 as we commemorate this centennial year with 12 stories from our holdings for you to save, print, or share. April’s featured image is of Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin.

Native American lawyer and suffragist Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin was a prominent advocate on behalf of Native women and on Native Americans’ position in mainstream America.

As a clerk in her father’s law office, she moved with him to Washington, DC, to help defend treaty rights for their tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Baldwin as a clerk to the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA).

Baldwin was also a respected member and active speaker for the Society of American Indians (SAI). The SAI was often critical of the OIA and Federal policies encouraging assimilation, but initially Baldwin believed her position in the OIA allowed her to advocate for Native men and women. She would later change her stance.

In 1911, Baldwin chose to be photographed in traditional dress with her hair in braids for her personnel file photo for the Office of Indian Affairs. This simple photograph was a radical act for its time, when she would have been expected to assimilate into white American culture.

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This statement-making photo is on display in our Rightfully Hers exhibit at the National Archives Building. Although the exhibit is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, you can still explore the stores of the woman who fought for the vote in our online exhibit.

At the age of 49, after years of working for lawyers, Baldwin enrolled at Washington College of Law in 1912. She graduated in two years becoming the first woman of color and Native American to earn a law degree from the college. Baldwin would eventually shift her message from assimilation to extolling the values of Native Americans.

In 1913, organizers of the Washington, DC, suffrage march attempted to racially segregate the parade, but some women of color, like Baldwin, walked alongside white women. Baldwin marched with other female lawyers and recalled struggling to “walk four abreast . . . [in a space] no wider than a single car track.” as the parade was nearly overrun with men hassling the marchers.

Baldwin would go on to work for the OIA (which became the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947) until her retirement from Federal service in 1932.

This blog post was adapted from exhibit text written by curator Corinne Porter for Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, and from an entry in DocsTeach.

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