WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


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1869-   William Bright sponsors suffrage bill before Wyoming Territorial Legislature; Governor John A. Campbell signs bill approving full suffrage for women.

1870-   Eliza A. "Grandma" Swain of Laramie casts first female vote in Wyoming; Esther Morris and Caroline Neil appointed justices of the peace of Sweetwater County.

1890-   Wyoming statehood approved by Congress.

1924-   Nellie Tayloe Ross elected governor of Wyoming.

Wyoming, The Land of Freedom: The Equality State

Esther Morris 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.

Mrs. Smith 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.

Suffrage Cartoon 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.

Badlands Tourist Camp 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 breathing.

Nellie Tayloe Ross 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.