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 Jocelyn Gage, was a leading women’s suffrage advocate in the 1870s. Jocelyn Birch attended Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, and graduated with a B.S. degree 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 Northrop Burdick. Previously, a Fargo, North Dakota, lawyer, and son of former Congressman Usher 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. 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 Strom Thurmond and West Virginia’s Robert 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. She was the first and only 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.”Burdick joined Senators Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Barbara 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.
After leaving the Senate, Burdick returned to North Dakota. She died on December 26, 2019, in Fargo, North Dakota.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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