Lydia Langer: The Unexpected Candidate Amid 1930’s Political Scandal and Intrigue
SCANDAL ! Back room deals and a little back stabbing to maintain positions of power. Ah, the stuff of politics. In October 1934 some involved in this kind of political dance held a forum in Watford City to woo the ranchers, farmers, and independent minded residents.
Surprising many was soft spoken Lydia Langer, the state’s recent first lady, now the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Traveling with congressional contenders in pursuit of their political desires, Lydia could not be farther away from how her life was anticipated to be. It was not the 1600 miles from New York to Bismarck; she could have been across oceans living a more expected life.
Lydia Cady was born in New York in 1890 to Cleveland Cady and his second wife Emma. Cady was a prominent architect who designed many significant east coast structures including at Yale University. Lydia had four older siblings who adored her. She attended a prominent finishing school, spent her summers on a riverside estate, did church work and enjoyed cultural activities. She was a refined young woman who did what was expected.
Lydia met Bill Langer when he was attending Columbia University. While at a concert with a young man from another notable family, Bill arranged for her date to leave his seat and slipped in beside Lydia. He saw her across the concert hall and knew she was the one for him. Lydia’s parents were initially distressed with the prospect of Bill for many reasons, particularly the idea of Lydia moving to the “wilds of North Dakota”. Bill graduating at the top of his class was offered a job with one of the best legal firms in Manhattan, but returned to North Dakota. During their seven year courtship Bill began his legal career with the Morton County State’s Attorney. By the time they married in 1918, he had been elected the North Dakota Attorney General, Lydia’s mother had died, and her father now considered Bill a true friend.
Off to North Dakota Lydia went, to a small apartment in Bismarck with no servants or the many amenities she had been raised with. She brought her love for Bill, an indomitable spirit, sense of humor, even temperament and immediately made a comfortable home. By 1929 they had four daughters.
Bill was elected governor in 1932, but did not complete his term. In 1933, he required all state employees to donate part of their salaries to the Non Partisan League and a newspaper owned by administration officials. While this was not prohibited by state law and was actually a common practice during this era; highway department employees were paid through the federal government. Prosecutors used federal law to charge conspiracy to defraud the government. Many considered this a payback; the judge and prosecutor were two of Langer’s fiercest opponents.
In 1934, while Bill was fighting legal and political battles, Lydia was impressing North Dakotans by filling in for Bill at speaking engagements. That summer Bill was removed from office and Lydia was asked to take his place on the ticket. Lydia had not sought public office, but threw herself into the campaign crisscrossing the state making as many as twelve speeches a day, saying “when you do something you should put your heart into it”.
Lydia navigated the line between promoting policies that helped elect Langer and maintaining her independence. Langer’s policies were considered to be unwavering in support of North Dakota farmers and ranchers. He even declared a moratorium on farm and ranch foreclosures using the National Guard to stop sheriff sales. Rural North Dakota had been hit hard by the Great Depression and drought of the 1930’s. This “disregard of the law” likely contributed to his prosecution.
Lydia told supporters, “I personally believe that I was chosen because the people of North Dakota are confident that in the event I am elected governor, I will continue to carry out these humanitarian policies”. Promoting new policies of her own, she was keenly aware of the ground breaking nature of her campaign, “I am in the unusual position of being the first woman to receive the nomination for the governorship in North Dakota. I believe the women of North Dakota have just as vital an interest in access to the Republican Party this fall as the men.”
Lydia made it clear she was her own person, “There will be no back seat driving in my administration…I’ll take advice, but there’ll be no one standing on the side telling me what to do. I promise you that”. There were numerous articles in papers across the country including the Spokane Daily Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune, which noted the remarkable nature of her run. The Tribune characterized the race saying, “In North Dakota the paramount issue is neither the New Deal nor local taxes but whether the state is to be governed for the next two years by a woman”. While Lydia was well received, there were those behind the scenes looking for ways to undermine her candidacy.
Lydia was ultimately defeated by 17,000 votes. Thomas Moodie, her opponent, governed for only 40 days before being removed from office. Langer had discovered he was not a state resident for the years required to run for public office. In seven months, North Dakota had four different governors, mostly due to the determination of some to get rid of Langer and his equal determination to get back at those trying to destroy him. Throughout, Lydia was a supportive partner, independent strong candidate, and gracious loser who gracefully returned to her previous life. Soon Lydia found herself back in the governor’s mansion, again as first lady. Bill Langer was acquitted of the charges against him in a subsequent trial and reelected governor in 1936.
- Prior to 1964 the term length for governor of North Dakota was two years. In 1964, the voters approved an initiated constitutional amendment to change the term to four years.
- In 1934 women had only been fully able to participate in the election process for fourteen years. The 19th Amendment was passed on August 26, 1920 guaranteeing women in the United States the right to vote. While the right of women to vote had not been specified and assured in the U.S. Constitution prior to 1920, it had not been prohibited either. Women already had full voting rights in 15 states, most of them west of the Mississippi River. The wild and open west, long thought of as a stronghold of rugged masculinity, was well ahead of the rest of the country with regard to women voting. In 1869 a bill was introduced in the house of the then Wyoming Territory granting all female residents 21 and over, the right to vote. It became law in December of that year. The country’s first female governor, Nellie Taylor Ross, was elected in Wyoming in 1924. In North Dakota by 1917, women had full voting rights in municipal and presidential elections.
- Lydia Cady’s mother was the sister of J. Cleveland Cady’s first wife Julia; after Julia died he married Emma. Lydia was used to socializing with the famous and prominent before she met William “Bill” Langer. One of the Langer’s close family friends was Woodrow Wilson. When Lydia moved to North Dakota she brought with her four poster bed, piano, silver, paintings and many other like items from her family home. While Lydia Langer ran for governor in addition to questionable fundraising tactics, rumors were started about Lydia. One of them was that she was pregnant and so voting for her was useless. Usher Burdick who was traveling with her as a congressional candidate and a rather large man, would stand next to the 99 pound Lydia, and pat his stomach saying, “now which one of us is pregnant?”
By: Mary Patricia Martell Jones
Published in: The Cowboy Chronicle
The North Dakota Cowboy Hall
Fall 2016 Edition
A friend gave me a few old copies of the McKenzie County Farmer, a newspaper that my grandfather had saved. When looking through them I saw the picture of Lydia Langer candidate for governor – in 1934! This in and of itself was unusual, and it piqued my interest. Researching for this article I found even more intriguing details that there was not room for in this story. Lydia definitely led an unexpected life!
- State Historical Society of North Dakota
- Fargo Woman Remembers Life with her Famous Father by Bob Lind, June 20, 2010
- First Ladies of North Dakota by Dorothy Hager, 1967
- Bismarck Tribune, November 2, 1934, “Money Fight Against Her, Says Mrs. Langer”
- Bismarck Tribune, November 7, 1934, “Lydia Langer Sees No Need of Change”
- Spokane Daily Chronicle, October 25, 1934, “Lydia Langer Seeks to Vindicate Mate”
- Chicago Tribune, October 6, 1934, “Shall a Woman Rule North Dakota While Husband is Under Conviction?”
- Lydia Cady Langer: The Almost Governor, from Women of North Dakota; Celebrating Their Lives through Primary and Secondary Sources, by Marilyn Ridenhower and Audrey Brigl Zins, 1989,
- McKenzie County Farmer, October 18, 1934