Esther Hobart Morris
After the Wyoming Territorial Legislature granted women suffrage in December 1869, James W. Stillman protested by resigning from his role as a justice of the peace. By doing so, he unknowingly set the stage for Esther Hobart Morris to become the first woman to hold the office in the United States.
In 1870, she was appointed by the Sweetwater County Board at the age of 55. Standing 6 feet tall, Morris commanded her courtroom and spoke in a way that was more “candid than diplomatic,” according to the American Journal of Legal History.
Morris served as a trailblazer for women holding public office in America, and was living proof of the tangible effects women’s suffrage had in Wyoming. By holding the position, she became a symbol of the suffrage movement across the country.
As a working woman in the late 1800s, she lacked both legal experience and formal education. Her approach was to judge legal issues “on the broad principles of justice and right without regard to technicalities or quibbles of law.” By the end of her eight-and-a-half-month tenure, Morris had a solid grasp on sophisticated legal proceedings.
When Stillman learned his role would be filled by Morris, he refused to provide his official docket. Carrying out her first legal proceeding and setting the stage for how she handled the role, Morris issued a warrant for Stillman to appear in court.
But any hard feelings Morris might have carried had no effect on her court proceedings. When Stillman’s lawyer ultimately argued that she couldn’t preside over the case because of a conflict of interest, Morris agreed and dismissed the case.
Wyoming v. Stillman was the first ruling by a woman and helped establish Morris’ dedication to justice.
During that time, Morris was the only woman in such a position of power in the U.S. Justices of the peace held more power than modern-day judges because the court covered every type of case. She presided over everything from assault cases to debt disputes.
In 1876, Morris settled down in Cheyenne after a couple years of traveling. Through the 1870s and 1890s, she also attended national suffrage conventions across the country, from San Francisco to Philadelphia.
A grand celebration overtook Cheyenne when Wyoming became a state in 1890. Morris attended the festivities as an honored guest. She presented the state flag to the governor at the time, saying, “On behalf of the women of Wyoming, and in grateful recognition of the high privilege of citizenship that has been conferred upon us, I have the honor to present to the state of Wyoming this beautiful flag.”
Theresa Jenkins, one of Wyoming’s most powerful forces for women’s suffrage, was appalled by the number of saloons she saw in Cheyenne when she arrived in 1877. To promote refinement in her new city, Jenkins created a reading room at her local church so young people had an alternative to drinking.
Jenkins would go on to use the same type of grassroots methods to make herself a key player in the suffrage and temperance movements in Wyoming. Though Jenkins arrived after women were allowed the right to vote, she took it upon herself to further the cause through rousing speeches, rallies and door-to-door canvassing, according to the Wyoming State Historical Society.
Previously a teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, Jenkins had the education and ability to get involved in the political scene. As one of the most vocal suffragettes, Jenkins became known for her rousing speeches and ability to move a crowd.
Jenkins was on the campaign trail in 1889, rallying for pro-suffrage delegates for the state constitutional convention. As with Esther Hobart Morris, such work drew criticism from high-ranking men of the time. One of the best scientists of the time wrote an article that said men were better suited for office because they were “free from the disabilities imposed by maternity.”
In Jenkins’ scathing rebuttal, she said women should be able to vote because they can reform man, which man will not do himself.
“Not the use of the ballot simply to make our own importance greater, but the ballot as it could be used to raise politics out of its filthiness, corruption and ignorance, and to bring in the reign of purity, patriotism and intelligence,” Jenkins wrote.
Jenkins was dedicated to righteousness, and she used the avenues of the suffrage and temperance movements to further that cause.
Because of her work, she was invited to be the keynote speaker at the statehood celebration. Alongside Morris, Jenkins stood as a testament to the effects of suffrage.
The speech was burned into her memory from so much practice. She would rehearse, making her husband move farther and farther away as she read to ensure that her words carried for everyone to hear.
The Cheyenne Daily Sun wrote, “(T)he lady in clear, forceful tones which penetrated to the very outskirts of the crowd, began and delivered without notes or manuscript an address which in ability, logic and eloquence has rarely if ever been equaled by any woman of the land. She was grandly equal to the occasion.”
A couple years later, Jenkins was the first woman in the country to be elected to the Republican National Convention. She would go on to travel the country, attending suffrage events and working with other suffragists to pass laws nationally.
In 1919, Congress passed the amendment and needed 36 states to ratify it. Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association, personally asked Jenkins to plead the 19th Amendment’s case to Wyoming’s governor, which required a special session of the Legislature.
The governor replied, “Mrs. Jenkins, if for no other reason than that you have asked me to do this, I would call this session, for I know that if you did not think it the right thing for me to do, you would not have asked it.”
Chapman Catt later named Theresa Jenkins, Esther Hobart Morris and Grace Raymond Hebard “as the three women of Wyoming who had meant more than all others for the state of Wyoming in the cause of suffrage.” According to Jenkins’ daughter, that praise was one of Jenkins’ “greatest honors.”
Newly divorced and far from her family, Amalia Post molded a career for herself in 1860s Denver. Across the country from her childhood home in Michigan, she raised chickens and loaned money with interest.
Like many women of the time, Amalia Post grew up thinking women were supposed to be the center of the household. Her real life, however, contradicted that notion. Although she learned to navigate the world of commerce and support herself financially, Post showed no signs of interest related to women’s suffrage.
By the draw of a hat, she ended up in the midst of a movement, however. After moving to Cheyenne to be with her husband, she was selected as the foreman of the first female jury in the U.S.
When women in Wyoming were granted suffrage, the question of jury duty was brought up. If juries were selected from voter rolls, then women ought to participate. And so Post was selected as the foreman of the jury for a murder trial in Cheyenne.
Men of the time thought that women didn’t have the capacity to justly rule on cases involving such high emotions. Some historians say allowing women on juries was an attempt to discredit suffrage or that it was a joke.
Nevertheless, Post, along with other female jurors, sat in the courtroom to hear pleas. In the end, they sentenced the murderer to be hung. In reality, the women of the time reportedly dished out higher fines and stricter rulings.
Women being able to serve on juries was short-lived, though. A judicial opinion in 1871 took away the jury duty requirement for women.
Post, however, went on to become a national suffragist. Like many activist leaders of the time, Post got involved with the National Woman Suffrage Association. She traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met with women like Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull.
During the fall of 1871, the territorial legislature in Wyoming made a pass at repealing suffrage. Legislatures at the time were trying to pass the bill over the governor’s veto, but the anti-suffrage bill made it all the way to the governor’s desk.
Post lobbied against the bill, which ended up on the governor’s desk because it was one vote short in Congress. Although Gov. John Campbell, who signed the first suffrage bill, was likely to veto, Post still reached out to him personally.
Campbell vetoed the bill and addressed the Legislature, saying, “It is simple justice to say that the women entering, for the first time in the history of the country, upon these new and untried duties, have conducted themselves in every respect with as much tact, sound judgment and good sense as men.”
Nellie Tayloe Ross
As the governor’s wife, Nellie Tayloe Ross made a home for herself and her family in the governor’s mansion. She didn’t know it yet, but a great personal tragedy would propel her to hold a different position within those walls.
After the death of her husband, Ross decided to run for his role as governor to carry out his final term. According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, the election was about a month after his death.
As a member of the Cheyenne Woman’s Club, Ross learned how to speak publicly about politics and culture. Before marriage, she worked as a kindergarten and piano teacher, but had little employment experience otherwise.
While her husband, William Ross, held the office, he consulted Nellie on political matters daily. And as Wyoming’s first lady, she was enamored by the lifestyle. Being so intertwined in the political sphere served her well after William’s death.
After he died, on Oct. 14, 1924, the Democratic Party nominated Nellie Tayloe Ross as its candidate for governor. She accepted 45 minutes before the deadline after days of uncertainty.
Pained by grief, Ross decided not to campaign for her election. She was running on her husband’s previous work and a promise to continue his mission.
She won the race by 8,000 votes, a significant victory.
And then she got to work. Ross outlined three of William’s policies to continue, including state loans for farmers and the enforcement of prohibition, but she also brought ideas of her own. Ross proposed eight ideas that ranged from budget requirements to protections for female industrial workers.
As a Democrat in a sea of Republicans, Ross was unable to pass the new progressive laws, which gave her a reason to remain invested.
After the session, Ross became a nationwide sensation. She spoke at the Woman’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C., the Woman’s World Fair in Chicago and the National Governors’ Conference in Maine.
In 1926, Ross ran for governor again. But this time, it was for herself. She lost the race by a narrow margin, but she wasn’t done working in government. In Washington, D.C., she became the director of Woman’s National Democratic Club.
According to the Wyoming State Archives, when she was first running for governor, she pledged, “I shall expect and feel in duty bound to make my own decisions in every case, realizing that upon me alone would rest the responsibility. The fact of my being a woman would in no way alter my obligation to the people in this respect.”
Campaigning in the 1890s looked much different than it does today. Estelle Reel, who became Wyoming’s first female statewide elected official, traversed the campaign trail in wagons and on horseback.
Getting elected as a state official at that time was no small task, especially for a woman.
Reel’s path to becoming Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction started within the walls of a school as a teacher in Cheyenne. She was voted in as Laramie County’s school superintendent, and set her eyes on the statewide seat after her reelection two years later.
While Nellie Tayloe Ross became governor out of circumstance, Reel secured her own position through vigorous campaigning. According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, she even went down a mine shaft in Rock Springs on the road to election.
When she took office, Reel proved those who doubted her wrong. Immediately, she looked at the funding for schools and found improvements that made the school system more revenue. She fought for a standardized curriculum in Wyoming to benefit rural students and wrote a book that served as a guideline for teachers.
From her successes in that position, Reel also became the first woman to be confirmed for a federal office. She served as the national superintendent of Indian schools, and, like many officials, considered Native Americans inferior. Her work in the schools centered around the “dignity of labor” because Reel thought Native Americans needed a more practical education for the roles they’d take in society, like agricultural laborers.
Although supportive of women’s voting rights, Reel still believed that certain offices should be held by men.
Though her comments about women in government drew criticism from the suffrage movement, Reel is still remembered for trailblazing a path for women to hold elected positions.
The suffrage bill was passed through an all-male legislature with help from women of influence behind the scenes. William Bright introduced the suffrage bill, and he was married to a woman named Julia Bright.
Julia’s exact impact on the passage of the bill is not entirely known.
It is speculated the Julia was a driving force behind the introduction of the suffrage bill, but some stories of Julia and the Brights haven’t stood up to the scrutiny of historians.
One story claims Esther Hobart Morris aided Julia in a harsh childbirth and later asked for William to introduce the suffrage bill, but there is no report of Julia having a child during that period.
She was more than 10 years younger than William, a former miner who owned a saloon, and more educated than him. When her husband introduced the bill, he gave the reason that if black and Chinese men could vote, his wife should be able to as well.
Louisa Ann Swain
The first election that women in the Wyoming Territory were allowed to vote in was on Sept. 6, 1870. Born in 1801, Louisa Ann Swain had gone the majority of her life without the right to vote.
On the morning of Sept. 6, at the age of 70, Swain became the first woman to cast her vote, according to the Wyoming State Archives. She was otherwise uninvolved in the suffrage movement, but is still remembered for the momentous occasion.
After she cast her ballot, the Laramie Daily Sentinel wrote, “It is comforting to note that our first woman voter was really a lady … of the highest social standing in the community, universally beloved and respected. The scene was in the highest degree interesting and impressive. There was just too much good sense in our community for any jeers or neers to be seen on such an occasion.”