Jocelyn Burdick, 1st ND woman to serve in US Senate, dies

Jocelyn Burdick, who became North Dakota’s first female U.S. senator when she was appointed to briefly fill the seat vacated by her late husband, has died at age 97

FARGO, N.D. -- Jocelyn Burdick, who became the first woman to represent North Dakota in the U.S. Senate when she briefly filled the seat vacated by her late husband, has died. She was 97.

Burdick died Thursday night at a care facility in Fargo, her son, Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick, told The Associated Press.

The Democrat was appointed to the Senate in September 1992, following the death of her husband, Quentin, a cornerstone of the North Dakota Democratic Party. She served until a special election that November.

Burdick was a founding member of Democratic Women Plus and a strong supporter of women’s rights.

She was private person and avoided the media while her husband was in office. But as a senator in 1992, she signed on to the Equal Rights Amendment and a proposal to guarantee abortion rights.

In her only Senate speech, she said she was proud of making history and of voting to override President George H.W. Bush's vetoes of bills requiring family leave and of overturning a ban on abortion counseling in federally funded clinics.

"I've always had the courage of my convictions,'' she said in a 1993 interview with The Associated Press. “From the time I was a young woman, I've taken positions I thought were right. And I stuck with them.''

Burdick was appointed to the Senate by then-Gov. George A. Sinner on Sept. 12, 1992, several days after the death of her husband. He served 34 years in Congress after being first elected to the U.S. House in 1958.

After her husband’s death, Jocelyn Burdick pledged to "serve the people of North Dakota and to finish Quentin's unfinished agenda.'' She served until a special election that November, when Kent Conrad was chosen to fill out the rest of Burdick's term. Conrad, also a North Dakota senator, agreed to run at the urging of fellow Democrats and Burdick.

Jocelyn Birch was born on Feb. 6, 1922, in Fargo. Her great-grandmother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a leader in the women's rights movement and worked closely with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

She attended Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, and then transferred to Northwestern University outside Chicago where she earned a degree in speech. She worked at radio station KVOX in Moorhead, Minnesota, as one of the area's first woman announcers.

In 1946, she married Kenneth Peterson of Grand Forks, who died 10 years later. They had two children, Birch and Leslie.

She married Quentin Burdick July 7, 1960, just a week after he won a special election to the U.S. Senate. Quentin Burdick also was a widower, with four children, when he married Jocelyn. They had one son, Gage, who died in 1978.

Jocelyn Burdick's parents were Republicans, but she was a founding member of Democratic Women Plus, a group based in Fargo.

She met Quentin Burdick in 1952, in a League of Women voters' debate. He also was a strong supporter of women's rights.

“We would never have gotten together had he not been,'' she once said.

While Quentin Burdick went to Washington to serve in Congress, she stayed behind in Fargo with their children and gave few interviews with reporters, preferring to keep her life private. But when she was appointed to the Senate, Jocelyn Burdick added her name to legislation on pay equity and women's health, the Equal Rights Amendment and a proposal to guarantee abortion rights.