March 2021-Three Prominent Women in South Dakota
March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the women who helped push South Dakota forward. Here we spotlight three, past and present, who have played prominent roles in politics and law.
Becoming the first woman elected to the South Dakota Legislature was just the beginning of the late Gladys Pyle’s accomplishments.
When the results of the 1922 primary election showed Pyle (1890-1989) losing by a small number of votes, she requested a recount, which she won. She then went on to win in the general election as a Republican to represent Beadle County in the state House of Representatives. She was re-elected to the House in 1924.
Since Pyle, 201 more women have served as state legislators, according to the South Dakota Legislative Research Council.
In 1926, Pyle was elected South Dakota Secretary of State, the first woman to be elected to a state constitutional office. The next 14 South Dakota Secretaries of State were all women, until Chris Nelson was elected in 2002.
Pyle became the first Republican woman elected to the U.S. Senate and the first South Dakota woman elected to either house in Congress when she won a special election to serve in the U.S. Senate from November 1938 to January 1939, after the death of U.S. Senator Peter Norbeck. The U.S. Senate did not meet during her brief tenure.
Pyle was also the first woman to serve on a state commission, to nominate a presidential candidate at a national political convention, and served on the first jury in the state to include women.
Karen Schreier of Sioux Falls was a partner in a law firm when she was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. Attorney for South Dakota. Schreier had to decide whether to stay with the “sure thing” in the law practice or take a risk by accepting the appointment, knowing that the appointment would only last as long as the president was in office. She accepted the appointment, and in 1993 became the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney in South Dakota. Schreier served in that capacity until she was appointed U.S. District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota in 1999, the first female appointed by a U.S. President to serve as a federal judge. She served as the chief judge of the district court from 2006 to 2013, and continues to serve as a U.S. District Judge.
“When I graduated from law school, there were very few female lawyers who were practicing law in South Dakota,” Schreier said. “There was only one female state circuit judge, no female judges on the South Dakota Supreme Court or federal district court, and no female states attorneys. Without seeing a female in those roles, it was hard to imagine ever being selected to serve in either role. I feel very fortunate to have been selected to serve in both of these roles.”
Schreier has hired almost 30 law clerks during her time as a judge. The law clerks are recent law school graduates, and Schreier becomes a mentor to them during the two years they work for her before going into the practice of law.
“Judge Schreier was ‘leaning in’ before it was trendy for women to do so, and she’s been a daily example for me that there’s no substitution for hard work,” said Jennifer Mammenga of Sioux Falls. As Assistant U.S. Attorney, Mammenga has multiple hearings each week in Schreier’s courtroom and has tried many cases before her.
Jennifer Mammenga started her legal career in 2010 as an assistant attorney general in the South Dakota Attorney General’s office. She began work in 2016 as an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of South Dakota Office of the United States Attorney and currently serves as the district’s opioid coordinator. She received a regional award for her work prosecuting drug crimes in 2016.
Mammenga sees more women becoming attorneys and believes it is a great career for women. Of the 2,686 currently licensed active attorneys in South Dakota, approximately 32 percent are women, according to the State Bar of South Dakota.
“We have so many fantastic female judges and attorneys in South Dakota who are willing to mentor younger female attorneys as they are coming up,” she said. “The list of the women in the legal profession who have helped shape my career is long, and I owe them all much gratitude for the trails they blazed and examples they have set for me.”
Her work as a prosecutor has allowed Mammenga to have both an interesting career and her family.
“I absolutely love what I do at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and would be happy to continue in this role as long as they will let me! I have a passion for public service and community safety, and I hope that my legal career will continue to be a reflection of those values,” Mammenga said.
This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Find us on the web at www.sdhsf.org. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit a story idea.