While South Dakota has a small population—barely half of the population of Nebraska—history has given us opportunities for unusual, national influence.
In 1952 Barbara Bates Gunderson, originally a newsperson from Yankton, was the Republican Committeewoman for South Dakota. At the Republican National Convention, held in Chicago that summer, she became convinced that Dwight Eisenhower should be the next president of the United States. Her husband, Bob, had returned from serving under General Eisenhower throughout the campaign in Europe and found the general’s leadership and ethics to be beyond reproach. Now, once again, the United States was at a crossroads regarding exercising our influence far beyond our borders.
Barbara convinced the South Dakota delegation to change their vote from Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio to Dwight David Eisenhower. In doing so, she incurred the wrath of Sen. Karl Mundt—one of the most influential United States Senators—as he had promised Taft that South Dakota would cast its entire delegate vote for him. South Dakota’s change of support was announced at a very critical time as the states were called—one-by-one—to cast their votes. This was a history changing decision and, as history tells us, Eisenhower received the Republican nomination and then elected president of the United States.
When President Eisenhower decided to have his summer White House in the Black Hills, he flew into Ellsworth Air Force Base. As he was about to step off the airplane, he looked about at the welcoming committee then he turned to a general near him and said, “I don’t see Mrs. Gunderson.” The general looked at him and said, “Mr. President, I was told by Sen. Mundt that she was not to be invited.” The president looked at his watch and said, “If she’s not here in thirty minutes I’m changing my plans, returning to Washington, and will not be in South Dakota again.” A police car went, with sirens blazing, into Rapid City and to West Blvd. When the car arrived at her door Barbara was already dressed appropriately to sit next to the president at lunch.
Later, Barbara became a member of the United States Civil Service Commission—a federal government agency created to select federal employees based on their merit rather than who they knew. When she went to Washington, Barbara discovered that there were very few women in the federal government and none higher in rank than herself. There were certainly no cabinet secretaries, assistant secretaries, or even deputy assistant secretaries. At the same time, she recognized that there were incredibly capable women occupying key positions in every department of government. She determined that there must be a way to pierce that glass ceiling.
As an accomplished writer, Barbara knew the importance of publicity in changing behavior and she devised an interesting contest. She went to the presidents of major corporations—Mr. Sarnoff at RCA, the president of General Electric, and others—and asked them if they would contribute to a fund that would reward outstanding civil servants. The plan was to have every department in the government nominate the most effective, impressive, and accomplished women on their staff who would then all compete with the others for a monetary prize. The winner would receive $25,000—a great deal of money at that time ($164,600 in today’s dollars). All of a sudden those who had been ignored were given an incredible amount of attention and the position of women in government changed forever.
A wonderful example of South Dakota sending someone to Washington who was an original thinker, was not fearful of the political hierarchy, and was able to take strong positions to make changes.