The Western suffrage story began when Wyoming transformed a dream into reality in 1869. That year,
the twenty-member Territorial Legislature approved a revolutionary measure stating: "That every
woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this Territory, may at every election to be
holden under the law thereof, cast her vote." William Bright, the bill's sponsor, had come to
share his wife, Julia's, belief that suffrage was a basic right of American citizenship.
There was no organized suffrage campaign, and not a single parade, debate or public display.
But women kept vigil outside Governor John A. Campbell's office until he signed the bill into
law. Eliza A. "Grandma" Swain of Laramie claimed the honor of casting Wyoming's first female
ballot in 1870. Esther Morris of South Park City and Caroline Neil gained fame as the nation's
first female justices of the peace. The next year Wyoming's women sat on juries, another simple
but revolutionary inroad for women's rights.
Why would a western backwater like Wyoming, where there were more antelope than people,
challenge the nation to embrace such a controversial experiment? Was it a publicity stunt to
attract more settlers? A political ploy to advance partisan causes? A panicked effort to
counteract the votes of newly enfranchised African American men in western territories? There
were many reasons offered in 1869, and no one explanation satisfies historians even to this day.
It is clear, however, that Wyoming women embraced their right to vote and staunchly defended it
against all threats.
The news spread rapidly in 1869. Although Susan B. Anthony's call for eastern women to
migrate en masse to Wyoming went largely unheeded, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled to
"the land of freedom" on the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad in 1871. Tourists and
journalists made regular pilgrimages to the territory, like anthropologists observing an exotic
tribe. Some were on the lookout for that "pestiferous freelove doctrine," which eastern critics
of women's suffrage feared so heartily. But they were hard-pressed to find anything that shocking
in Wyoming. By 1888, national suffragists were still anxious to tout the therapeutic effects of
suffrage in practice, hanging convention banners declaring that "the vote of women transformed
Wyoming from barbarism to civilization." Harper's Magazine ran a story describing Cheyenne women
in their Sunday best, politely registering voters door to door as if promenading through Central Park.
Life for Wyoming women went on, despite the exaggerated eastern publicity. Town women organized
small schools and churches and tried to keep saloons under control. Hardy ranch women survived
the labors and wild adventures of raising cattle on dry windy prairies or in the snowy Rocky
Mountains. Horsewomen rode astride in trousers, tracking and shooting elk, bobcat and pronghorn.
Families crowded into dusty sod houses for shelter during blizzards. A handful of African
American women found work in Cheyenne as laundresses. For most women, the right to participate
fully in their community's politics became a fact of life as necessary as working, eating or
Wyoming statehood, in 1890, brought the frightening prospect that opponents of suffrage would
rescind the right in the new constitution. Women lobbied hard against such threats. Two-thirds of
the voters (all male) approved the proposed constitution with suffrage intact. The suffragists'
powers of persuasion held up even when statehood was threatened in the face of congressional
opposition. When the U.S. Congress, strongly opposed to women's suffrage, threatened to withhold
statehood from Wyoming, Cheyenne officials sent back a a staunchly worded telegram stating
that Wyoming would remain out of the Union 100 years rather than join without women's suffrage
On July 10, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill approving Wyoming
as the nation's "Equality State." Wyoming voters went on to make history in 1924, when they elected
Nellie Tayloe Ross, the nation's first woman governor.