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Wyoming History of Women’s Suffrage

Geologically, socially, and culturally, Wyoming is a crossroads.  Geologically, the crossroads consist of the Laramide orogeny, the collision of tectonic plates that literally gave rise to the Rocky Mountains.  As the westward pioneer migration proceeded, the telescope on a prairie schooner often focused on the peaks of the Rockies as seen from the grasslands of Nebraska and Kansas.  Pikes Peak was first spotted from Kansas, and Laramie Peak from Nebraska on the Oregon trail.  These important landmarks both guided the pioneers and helped them measure their slow progress towards the dreams of land, freedom and opportunity, creating a certain type of social responsibility to each other and a unique culture.

Wyoming is also the crossroads, because of the Rocky Mountains, of the Atlantic and Pacific drainages. The water from the magnificent landmark peaks are the source of life downstream of Wyoming.  Wyoming citizens command this crossroads from another perspective as well, because the Great Red Desert Basin, where water does not flow out of the state in either direction, was at one time a great inland sea.  This geography made it a state that was "easier" to travel through by oxen drawn wagons, or in the case of the some of the Mormon pioneers, with handcarts, due to the passes, landmarks and more gradual slopes.

The geology of Wyoming is also the wealth of Wyoming. It formed the geography that makes Wyoming the path to the Northwest, but also produced lodes of gold, silver copper, trona, coal, oil, natural gas, iron, rare earth minerals, and uranium... to name a few.  This is the best place in North America to explore geology.  In Yellowstone, the Wind River Canyon, and the mountains and basins that hold untold wealth, you can even find ancient fish, wood and occasionally a dinosaur preserved in fossils. 

People came to Wyoming because of the easier path through the Rockies along the Southern part of the state, where the transcontinental railroad traversed a path that rose to 8,247 feet at the highest point between Laramie and Cheyenne.  A monument was erected at that point to the Ames brothers who completed the railroad in the same year Wyoming became a Territory, 1869.  Pioneers who came earlier on the Oregon and Mormon trails, passing through the state, were amazed by the ease of travel afforded by rail.  The railroad and the trails both came together to bring a woman to Wyoming that changed history forever.

Esther Hobart Morris, born in New York in 1814, and married to a railroad engineer, found her life turned upside down when her husband was killed in an accident in 1844.  They had land in Peru Illinois, but when she traveled there she was unable to claim it. Women were not legally able to inherit or own property.  They often were not able to take custody of their children because the law.  Esther took the railroad West to Green River, Wyoming.  She then boarded a wagon and joined her new husband in South Pass City, Wyoming, where gold had been discovered along the continental divide. 

She was a strong woman and the stories vary, but she clearly knew some of the men from South Pass City, WY, who were sent to the first Territorial Legislature in 1869.  Those men joined others from the counties of the territory to meet in Cheyenne.  Every single member of the first Territorial legislature was a Democrat.  But they passed laws favorable to women.  Esther Hobart Morris is credited with those laws.  Her statue stands both at the US Capitol and the Wyoming Capitol.  Laws passed included one that mandated that women teachers in public schools were paid the same as men teaching in public schools (equal pay for equal work).  Additionally, women were given the right to inherit property and have custody of their minor children.  The legislature then set a political trap for the Governor, a republican appointed by President U.S. Grant, John Campbell.  This trap was a bill that gave the Territory’s women suffrage.  The Democrats would make hay with such a bill.  There were two Territorial Supreme Court Justices with Campbell the night he considered the bill,  Justices Howe and Kingman. They encouraged Campbell to sign the bill and debated long into the night. 

Campbell signed the bill on December 10, 1869.  Wyoming had become the first government on the planet to have women's suffrage and keep it.

Keep it they did. 

Justice Kingman commented:

"At our first election, before women voted, we had pandemonium.  The saloons were all open.  Whiskey was dealt out freely by the candidates to all who would vote for them.  The streets were filled with men partially intoxicated all armed with knives and pistols; it was dangerous to pass through them; the bullets were flying at random, I believe none were killed outright, but many were severely wounded."

"At the next election women voted, and perfect order prevailed.  The miners and railroad laborers were still there; the gamblers and saloon-keepers also. (Our saloons are all kept by men; I do not know of one that is kept by a woman.)  Political parties on one side and another still gave the saloons money to distribute free rum on election day. 

But at the polls, where before it was so rough, perfect order prevailed, and has prevailed ever since.  I have never heard of a single case of a lady being insulted or treated with disrespect at elections.  I remember a case in point, which, at the time caused me much uneasiness.  We had, at first, a large proportion of Southern men and of Northern Copperheads.  By that I mean men who advocated for succession, and came to Wyoming to escape the being drafted.  Carriages were employed by the candidates to bring ladies to the polls.  At the hotel were a number of colored girls employed as servants.  After a while a carriage drove up with four of these colored girls in it.  They were helped out, and as went to the polls the crowd quietly parted; they voted and returned to the carriage without a word said.  Then I breathed freely; I knew that all was safe." 

The bill that was passed giving women suffrage was quickly followed by women holding office.  It is an irony that the first public office to be held by a woman was in the judicial branch of Wyoming territorial government.  Introductions please... "Lady Justice meet Esther, Esther meet Lady Justice."  Yes, Esther Hobart Morris was the first woman to hold office as Justice of the Peace in South Pass City, Sweetwater County, Territory of Wyoming.  She was appointed by Secretary of State, Edward M. Lee as acting Governor of the Territory on February 17th, 1870.  The Appointment Certificate scans of both the front and back are attached.  Later, Edward M. Lee met his political demise, in part, at the hands of 600 women who signed a petition to have him removed from office.  The political right of petition is as important as the vote in Wyoming.

1870 is a banner year in the history of women's rights.  Holding office, first election and women serving on juries.  In fact, both Justices Kingman and Howe were present when the words were first, for the first time in US history, spoken in Laramie Wyoming... "ladies and gentleman of the jury."

1871 is the year the territorial legislature tried to take it back.  As always in history, we never run forward all the way.  It is two steps forward one step back.  The legislature passed a bill to repeal women's suffrage and made the Republican party the dominant political party in Wyoming thereafter.  Justice Kingman in the attached document refers to the first election in 1870.  Some Democratis candidates lost their election to Republicans.  They decided to end the experiment.  The bill, passed in the middle of the night on a fast track, was then vetoed by Governor John Campbell.  His speech is published in the Territorial House Journal attached, and page 115 contains the reason why in Wyoming it was important to keep the vote because of the other laws passed in the 1869 session.

John Campbell’s words:

"The law granting to women the right to vote and to hold office in this territory was a natural and logical sequence to the other laws upon our statute books.  Our laws give to the widow the guardianship of her minor children; will you take away from her all voice in relation to the public schools established for the education of those children?  Our laws permit women to acquire possess property, will you forbid them having any voice in relation to taxation of that property?  This bill says too little or too much-- too little if you legislate upon the assumption that woman is inferior, who will be kept in a subordinate position, for in that case the other laws affecting her should be repealed or amended; and too much if she is, as no one will deny, the equal of man in heart and mind, for in that case we cannot afford to dispense with her counsel and assistance in the government of the territory."

Governor Campbell's speech went around the world, published in many suffragette publications.  Wyoming stood strong, and the veto was sustained, by one vote and by Republicans elected because women had been able to vote out Democrats who would have overridden the veto. 

Wyoming continued with suffrage up to the constitutional convention in 1889, with twenty years of women's suffrage under it's belt. Some in the convention sought to place suffrage into a separate vote for ratification of the new constitution.  Those efforts failed.  Instead voices like Mr. Holden of Uinta County who said...

"Now, Mr. Chairman, I believe that I voice the wishes of the people of Uinta when I say that rather than surrender the right which the women of this territory have so long enjoyed, a privilege which they have not only used with credit to themselves but with profit to the country, in which they live, I say rather than surrender that right, we would rather remain in a territorial condition throughout the endless cycles of time."

Wyoming was solidly affirming retaining the right of suffrage that began in 1869.  The constitution was ratified by the citizens of the territory in 1889.  Wyoming then had to wait for Congress and the president to become a state.

During the wait, a remarkable thing happened.  F.E. Warren, the appointed Governor of the territory made an appointment.  John Slaughter who had been the Superintendent of Public Instruction since 1873 asked to leave office for reasons of health.  Governor Warren appointed Slaughter's daughter Minnie Slaughter to the position.  He must have known that Minnie would likely be in the office when Wyoming territory became the State of Wyoming.  Since the Superintendent of Public Instruction was one of the five elected offices created in the new constitution, she would be a member of the executive branch when the transition was made.  And it came to be.  Minnie Slaughter became the first woman in history to occupy an executive branch position upon entering statehood.  She held the office until the first election following statehood that happened shortly after in the fall of 1890. 

The election of 1890 was remarkable.  In every single county in Wyoming, the county superintendent of schools elected was a woman.  Two years later, Estelle Reel became the first elected Superintendent of Public Instruction and the first woman elected to statewide office.  She left office when President McKinley appointed her to Superintendent of Indian Education.  She became the first woman to be confirmed by the US senate for any position.

Women continued to be very active in politics and public service.  In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman Governor of Wyoming and the first in the United States elected following her husband's death in office.  She served a single term and them became the director of the US Mint.  She lived a long life.  Many can still recall her speech given at the dedication of the Esther Hobart Morris statue in the US Capitol.  She gave the speech, along with Thyra Thomson representing Wyoming as the Secretary of State.  Thyra Thomson became the longest serving elected official in Wyoming history, serving six terms. 

We continue to have women guiding the tiller of Wyoming government.  There has been a woman serving continuously as one of the five elected of the executive branch since January, 1939.  In 1994, Barbara Cubin was elected to congress.  Wyoming has sent a woman to congress ever since.

In 2019, Wyoming will celebrate women:

  • 150 years of women's suffrage
  • 80 years of women in elected positions of the executive branch continuously, at one point three of the five were women.
  • 25 years of women in congress continuously
  • And so many firsts, it is difficult to count.

 PDF Referrences: (Woman Sufferage in Wyoming - Kingman) | (House Journal 1871)

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Thursday, 23 November 2017

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