BURDICK, Jocelyn Birch



Jocelyn Burdick was appointed to a brief three-month term to fill the vacancy caused by the death of her husband, Quentin Burdick, a longtime North Dakota Senator and Representative. She earned the distinction of being the first woman Senator from the state and one of a record number of women serving simultaneously in the Senate.

Jocelyn Birch was born to Albert and Magdalena Towers Carpenter Birch in Fargo, North Dakota, on February 6, 1922. Her great-grandmother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a leading women’s suffrage advocate in the 1870s. Jocelyn Birch attended Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, and graduated with a BS from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1943. She worked as a radio announcer in Moorhead, Minnesota. In 1948 she married Kenneth Peterson of Grand Forks, North Dakota. They raised two children: a son, Birch, and daughter, Leslie, before Kenneth Peterson died in 1958. Two years later, Jocelyn Birch Peterson married Quentin Northrup Burdick. Previously, a Fargo, North Dakota, lawyer, and son of former Congressman Usher Lloyd Burdick, Quentin Burdick was elected to the U.S. House in 1958, serving one term before he won a special election to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. He served in the Senate 32 years, earning a reputation for his liberal voting record and ability to funnel federal dollars to fund projects in his home state.1 A widower, Quentin Burdick had four children from his previous marriage: Jonathan, Jan Mary, Jennifer, and Jessica. Jocelyn Burdick raised their combined six children (plus one they had together, Gage, who died in 1978) and served as her husband’s adviser and as a volunteer in his four Senate re-election campaigns.

Quentin Burdick was the third-longest-serving Senator in office (behind South Carolina’s James Strom Thurmond and West Virginia’s Robert Carlyle Byrd) when he died from heart failure on September 8, 1992. Jocelyn Burdick was appointed as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate by North Dakota Governor George Sinner on September 12, 1992. Governor Sinner noted that Burdick was “dumbfounded” when he first approached her; however, after consulting her relatives, she agreed to fill her late husband’s seat temporarily until the December special election.2 She was the first woman ever to serve North Dakota in the U.S. Congress. Burdick took the oath of office on September 16, 1992, telling her Senate colleagues, “I am deeply honored and I look forward to spending the next three months doing my best to carry on Quentin’s agenda.”3 Burdick joined Senators Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland as one of three women in the Senate, a record number at the time. Later that fall Dianne Feinstein of California also entered the Senate, raising the total to four.

During her three-month tenure, Burdick served on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Quentin Burdick had chaired at the time of his death. The only time Burdick spoke on the Senate Floor was to say goodbye to her colleagues on October 2, 1992. “I am honored to be the first woman to represent North Dakota in Congress,” she said. “I hope that the 103rd Congress will find many more women seated in this body.” Jocelyn Burdick served until December 14, 1992, when her special term concluded. Fellow North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad had earlier announced his retirement from his own Senate seat, fulfilling a 1986 election vow in which he promised to vacate his seat if the federal deficit was not significantly reduced after his first term. Succumbing to pressure from North Dakota Democrats, as well as Burdick, who indicated that Conrad was the candidate “to carry on the Burdick legacy,” Conrad ran and won the election to fill the remainder of the unexpired portion of the term ending on January 4, 1995.4

After leaving the Senate, Burdick returned to North Dakota. She died on December 26, 2019 in Fargo, North Dakota.5


1Wolfgang Saxon, “Quentin N. Burdick, 84, Is Dead; U.S. Senator From North Dakota,” 9 September 1992, New York Times: A19; Marilynn Wheeler, “North Dakota Sen. Quentin Burdick Dies, Age 84,” 8 September 1992, Associated Press.

2“Senator Burdick’s Wife Is Interim Successor,” 13 September 1992, New York Times: 26.

3“North Dakota: Jocelyn Burdick Appointed Interim Successor,” 14 September 1992, The Hotline: n.p.

4“Burdick’s Widow Urges Conrad to Run in N.D.,” 21 September 1992, National Journal: n.p.

5Ryan Stotts, “Jocelyn Burdick, North Dakota’s First Female U.S. Senator, Dies at 97,” 27 December 2019, Grand Forks Herald (ND), https://www.grandforksherald.com/news/government-and-politics/4841039-Jocelyn-Burdick-North-Dakotas-first-female-US-Senator-dies-at-97.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of North Dakota
Chester Fritz Library

Grand Forks, ND
Papers: Part of Quentin Burdick papers, 1958-1992.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Jocelyn Birch Burdick," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Rylance, Dan. Quentin Burdick: The Gentle Warrior. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 2007.

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