Burlingame, Sara (2019, color, Legislature)

Sara Burlingame

“Oh, make no mistake; it’s not revenge he’s looking for. It’s a reckoning.” – Doc Holiday, “Tombstone”

I don’t know how to imagine a future for women in Wyoming that doesn’t account for our past.

Well, maybe I want something slightly more than an accounting. Maybe what I really want is a reckoning. There is so much in our past to be fiercely proud of: the passage of suffrage, Esther Hobart Morris, Nellie Tayloe Ross and Louisa Swain. The question I want to ask is if we can hold a place of pride and honor for these stalwart foremothers of ours, while still peering behind the curtain to see the women who’ve been waiting to take their place beside them.

It would be a handy rhetorical device to rattle off the names of these women to provide a counterpoint. But I truly don’t know their names. Which is one of the saddest sentences that I know.

There is a reason the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is such a somber and crushing experience. To have your name and memory erased is a damnable thing. We speak of our history as though it is linear, an arrow shot from the past, arcing toward inevitability.

We enshrine our ancestors with definitive titles: Esther Hobart Morris was the first female Justice of the Peace, Nellie Tayloe Ross was the first female governor, and Louisa Swain was the first woman to cast her vote. But if we scratch the surface, we see the long shadow of colonization writ large over our stories.

Are we to believe that no Northern Arapaho woman served as an arbiter of justice in her community? We don’t have to imagine female Iroquois women who governed, we have the document that influenced our own Constitution, explicitly granting that right. We say “women” gained the right to vote but the “first” women of Wyoming, our indigenous sisters, were not granted full enfranchisement until the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

Sometimes I despair of ever knowing our full story. I worry that the bog of time has sucked these stories down into the mud. But the other night I attended an event that the Laramie County League of Women Voters put on, and amid the well-worn stories of suffrage that I’ve read a hundred times poking around the State Archives, I heard a new story. Geoff O’Gara spoke of the first election post-suffrage in the city of South Pass. Three African American women, he said, drove their horse and buggy to the polls and cast their vote without incident.

It isn’t too late for some freshman just embarked at the University of Wyoming to decide that she’ll be the ones to learn their names. Maybe she’ll even stumble across a picture in the Archives of a card game, the two players dressed in men’s suits, smoking cigars and thumbing convention in a way our transgender sisters will well recognize. They are our ancestors, and someday, maybe, we will know their names, and the past will be reconciled.

Is that what Doc Holliday meant by a reckoning? If you remember your history, Doc was a student of Latin and would have known that reckoning comes from reconsilio, to be brought back together. That is a reckoning I can get behind.

Sara Burlingame is a Democrat from Cheyenne representing House District 44 in the Wyoming Legislature.

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