Stories abound about how and why Wyoming’s women were afforded suffrage. They are part of the history and pride we will celebrate, and should debate, during the 150th year celebration.
Wyoming women have celebrated many firsts and lasts over the last 150 years. Our convoluted history demonstrates why a friend and I argued whether equal rights and equal opportunities are rights which must be nurtured and constantly exercised and defended, or whether they are just parts of a process that take time to evolve.
Whether process or right, the course to equality is an arduous one. In 1870, women were allowed to serve on juries, but in 1871, that responsibility was taken away. The law was not changed until 1949 when my grandfather, Frank Mockler, and one of the few women in the Wyoming House, Madge Enterline, sponsored a bill to allow women to again serve on juries.
The constitution was not amended to ensure women this right until 1980. In 1889, 20 years after first being allowed to vote, no women ran to participate in the process of writing our constitution – instead, the women sat on the sidelines and lobbied (and hoped) that equal rights would become part of the document.
Women didn’t begin to serve in the Legislature until 1910 (the House) and 1931 (the Senate); and today, at 15.6%, we have one of the smallest percentages of women serving in a state Legislature. We elected a woman superintendent of public instruction in 1894, but no woman served as president of the University of Wyoming until 2015.
We elected our only woman governor in 1924, almost 100 years ago. Our first congresswoman was elected in 1995, but a woman has yet to serve as a United States senator. Women serving in the judiciary was also slow to take hold – the first woman justice on our Supreme Court was not appointed until 2000.
Today in Wyoming, women make up 48.9% of the population. We are a force that could be reckoned with, yet our prosperity lags in many critical social and economic areas whose outcomes are often designed and determined by political will.
We are 34th in national ranking of women who turn out to vote; 63.1% of us are registered to vote, only 54% of us do. And clearly, elections, and who has access and who participates, have consequences.
For example, consider that in 2018 Wyoming women were paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men (this has gone up a bit in the last few years, but it still abysmal); or that our access to insurance and health care are among the worst in the country – both of which lead to higher illness and mortalities.
Apathy and disenfranchisement in any demographic is a loss to the whole – for without robust political engagement by all citizens, any democracy can fail.
While we all love to tout that Wyoming was the first state in the union to constitutionally allow women to vote, I am concerned that 150 years of reiterating a long-past milestone fails to ensure that the promise the franchise heralded, and future that looked so bright 150 years ago, is enough. We need to dedicate ourselves to educating our electorate, and, through this, reawaken the passion that will expand the franchise. We must develop the infrastructure that encourages all of Wyoming’s citizens to become more involved in the political process – at every level.
For Wyoming to succeed, all our voices, and votes, are essential to the success of the political discourse in our communities. The celebration of the 150th anniversary of Wyoming women’s suffrage should not just be about the celebration of being first – it should also focus on building and enriching a legacy which will impassion and support the future of all citizens of Wyoming.