“I say rather than surrender that right, we would rather remain in a territorial condition throughout the endless cycles of time.”
When Charles Holden of Uinta County uttered those words, the issue at hand was whether Wyoming would keep women’s suffrage when it applied for statehood in 1890. No other state in the union had yet extended the right of women to vote at that time, and there was opposition in Congress to letting the small and somewhat obnoxious Wyoming territory be the first to do so.
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Wyoming, our citizens know that Congress relented, and Wyoming became the first state where women enjoyed equality at the ballot box. It is something we proudly take for granted. Yet it almost didn’t happen.
Women’s right to vote had been an issue long before Wyoming was even a concept. Many might be shocked to learn that New Jersey was actually the first state in which women were allowed to vote. From 1776 to 1807, a loophole in the law stated that all people who owned more than 50 English pounds of property could do so. Blacks and women who inherited their husband’s wealth when widowed could vote in general elections.
Unfortunately, in 1807, politics grew acrimonious, and the major party at that time in New Jersey, the National Democrats, desired to take power away from their rivals, the Federalists. Since blacks and women both tended to vote Federalist, the National Democrats changed the law, and both segments were disenfranchised. It would take nearly six decades for blacks to get the right to vote again, and women wouldn’t get the right again nationally for more than 110.
The fight to regain suffrage was going to be a difficult one. The real push for women’s suffrage didn’t gather steam again until the late 1840s, when dedicated women and men met at Seneca Falls, New York, to demand the right to vote in 1848.
The political and social environments of the nation were against them. Many people, including women themselves, thought that politics was a male occupation and beneath the dignity of the fairer sex. Supporters tried time and again to convince the nation that suffrage was a good idea, and time and again failed to get legislatures or voters to agree. Nebraska made an attempt in 1855, and Kansas followed in 1859, to no avail.
It wasn’t until the nation began to stretch out across the open wilderness of the frontier that new opportunities arose. With the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, new communities were being born across the continent, and new territories were being formed. Wyoming was one of the youngest, being established in 1868, and it was here that suffragists saw a chance to change the game.
One man who saw it was Republican Edward M. Lee, the newly appointed secretary for the territory. He had just come from Connecticut, where he had tried and failed to get a women’s suffrage bill through the state legislature. Wyoming was going to be different, and he had a plan.
In 1869, the citizens of Wyoming were about to select their first territorial assembly. It was to be the job of this nascent body to create all the laws that would govern the territory. At this level, the rules were a little different than for states. For many states, for any laws to be passed, they had to be approved by two-thirds of the legislature. For federal territories, only a simple majority was needed.
Eager to take advantage of this fact, Lee did all he could to prime Wyoming voters to select candidates supportive of the concept of women’s suffrage. To help, he invited fellow Connecticuter Anna Dickinson to speak in Cheyenne prior to the meeting of the lawmakers. Cheyenne’s newspapers and their readers offered a split reception to her message. One thought the idea of women’s suffrage was absurd, while the other maintained, “Her arguments were unanswerable, except upon the basis of prejudice.”
It was for the assembly to decide. Fortunately for history, Lee had an unknown ally en route to the territorial capital.
William H. Bright was an unlikely revolutionary. A saloon keeper in Wyoming’s second largest city, South Pass City, Bright had narrowly won the third seat representing the town in the assembly amid a field of seven candidates. He was apparently a likeable man, as, despite his low poll numbers, he was nominated to be president of Wyoming’s upper house, the council.
When the Territorial Assembly, dominated by Democrats, convened in Cheyenne on Oct. 12, there was a flurry of motions and countermotions to get laws in place before the conclusion of the legislature Dec. 10. Slowly, but surely, law after law was passed, laying the foundations for Wyoming government.
On Nov. 12, Bright mentioned that he would propose a law giving women the right to vote. Some scoffed, but he finally presented his bill 15 days later on Nov. 27. There is speculation that Bright and Lee collaborated on the wording of the bill to make it palatable to the other council members.
When the council reviewed the bill, they did so with serious deliberation. The new law granting women the right to vote made sense. Many of the councilmen were fathers, who were concerned with the rough quality of Wyoming. It was a dangerous place, where miners and railroaders were relatively transient. Any young woman, like their daughters, who married these men were in danger of being left behind, penniless and destitute.
The law granted women not only the right to participate in government affairs, but also gave them the right to own their own property. It also proposed that any teacher that came to the territory, whether male or female, would be paid the same wage.
Other reasons made the bill popular. It would bring attention to the new territory, which would be good for business. It would also encourage, it was hoped, women to move to Wyoming, where men outnumbered women on the order of six to one. The council passed the bill approving women’s suffrage 6-2.
The lower of the legislative chambers, the House of Representatives, was a different story. Bright’s bill was met with derision and jokes. One of the leaders of the opposition was South Pass City lawyer Benjamin Sheeks, who listed several reasons why women shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Primarily, his points surmised that it was against the nature of women, public tradition and the Bible for women to step into participating in government.
Despite his arguments, which met general approval by the body, the House of Representatives also passed the bill, for a nefarious reason.
It was believed, by the many Democrats in the House, that the suffrage bill stood no chance whatsoever to become law. They saw the bill as a means to embarrass the Republican governor of the territory, John Campbell. They anticipated that he was conservative and would not allow Wyoming’s revolutionary move on women’s suffrage to tarnish his reputation or that of the national Republican party. They thought he would veto the bill, and they could use that against him in the next election. They thought they had him cornered.
They were wrong. To their shock and dismay, John Campbell signed the bill, and Wyoming became the first territory in U.S. history to purposefully grant women the right to participate in government.
With the passage of women’s suffrage, the nation’s attention was, indeed, focused on the tiny new territory. Some eastern newspapers were outraged, while others were gleefully supportive. The vast majority, however, took a “wait and see” attitude. What did it matter? Wyoming was a tiny territory in the middle of nowhere. If the people out west wanted this odd state of affairs, it should be left to them. None seemed to realize that there was more to come.
In February 1870, Gov. John Campbell left Wyoming for official business back in Washington. This left Secretary Edward Lee as acting territorial governor, and he was going to make the most of it. The bill allowed women the right to vote, but it also conferred upon them the duties of being fully vested in the government. They had to serve, too.
Just as he assumed his role, Lee was alerted that one of the federally appointed justices of the peace in South Pass City was stepping down in the middle of his term. The vacancy must be filled, and Lee moved to do so. With the support of two of the three Territorial Supreme Court justices, Lee appointed Esther Hobart Morris as the nation’s first female justice of the peace. She was the first woman given an official government position in the country’s history.
A strong and self-confident woman, Morris took the office despite her predecessor’s vocal opposition. She served out the remainder of his 8½-month term admirably, hearing 27 cases, both civil and criminal, as well as setting up grand and petit juries, depositing a ballot and canvassing votes after an election. Her performance was under a national microscope as a test of a woman’s suitability to handle official roles. She handled it well, and became a sensation with suffragists everywhere in the country.
Unfortunately, when her term came to its conclusion, she found few supporters in the dying town of South Pass to win a chance to continue. Even so, Esther Hobart Morris remained in demand at suffragist conventions around the nation, and she gladly attended with dignity and humor, becoming Wyoming’s greatest suffrage advocate.
While Esther Hobart Morris was serving her term as justice, the Wyoming Territorial Supreme Court moved again to bring women fully into government. This time it was in the jury box. Beginning in March 1870, women began being selected for jury duty. The first trials where women sat as peers to men were in Laramie.
Again, the reaction from around the country was less than supportive. The courtroom had long been seen as the domain of men. Women were considered too delicate to handle the brutal details of murder trials, and too aloof to comprehend the details of civil cases. When one of the women jurors fell ill during a trial, papers eagerly pointed to her malady as proof of women’s unsuitability for the halls of justice.
But there was more than women’s ability to handle the rough details of the law at stake. Jury duty was previously something men looked forward to. If they were sequestered during the trial, they would be housed and fed, at the court’s expense, at a hotel. There they could gamble, drink, swear and party as they wished. If women were allowed on juries, however, this was to come to a crashing end.
First, many had the objection that married women couldn’t possibly be housed in a hotel with strange men. Second, women tended to be temperance advocates who were against drinking, smoking and swearing. Third, no man, should he count himself a gentleman, would do any of these things in a woman’s presence. Women on juries took the fun out of it.
All arguments aside, the issue of women’s suitability for sitting on juries came to a head in March 1871, during the trial of John Boyer. Boyer was accused of killing two men after an argument on the Six Mile Ranch near Fort Laramie the year before. In the jury were five women, including the foreman, Amalia Post. Pleas of self-defense were held unsubstantiated, and the jury found Boyer guilty. He was sentenced to death and was executed the following month, the first man to suffer that fate in Wyoming Territory.
The Territorial Supreme Court was satisfied by the performance of women on juries, but they endured the same fate as Esther Morris. With a change in the court makeup, women’s service on juries came to an end in 1871, not to be reinstated again until 1950.
With service as justices and on juries fulfilled satisfactorily, the only thing left for women to prove was their suitability to handle the ballot box. On Sept. 2, 1870, women had their first chance. Louisa Ann Swain of Laramie was the first documented woman to cast her vote in Wyoming.
Many detractors thought that women wouldn’t be interested in voting, and, again, they were wrong. A thousand women turned out to vote. Observers noticed that the polling places across the territory were relatively quiet and peaceful in comparison to previous elections. There was no swearing, and no reports of fighting. Again, supporters proposed, the presence of women had begun to civilize the territory.
One group that was profoundly upset by the women’s turnout for the elections were the territory’s Democrats. When the ballots were counted, it was found that almost all of the women who voted had voted Republican. The Democrats were scandalized! Hadn’t they been the ones to propose and then pass the legislation granting women’s suffrage? The women, obviously, had understood what the Democrats had done in attempting to embarrass the governor, and they gave credit where credit was due.
The Democrats decided to assault this “abomination” of their own making. As the territorial assembly convened again in January 1871, Democrats proposed a new bill to repeal women’s suffrage. The bill passed both the Council and the House of Representatives. The only thing standing in the way of the annihilation of this new revolution was Gov. John Campbell.
As Campbell pondered what to do, rumors spread that he had been approached on the night he received the bill by two unknown men. They allegedly pledged to pay him $2,000 to sign the bill. Campbell explained his position to papers shortly thereafter:
“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 judgement and good sense, as men.”
Campbell stood by his previous decision and secured his veto to the legislation. It was now back to the Council. That body could only override the veto by two-thirds majority. After much deliberation, the Council votes were counted. Women’s suffrage in Wyoming Territory was saved by one vote. The Council conceded defeat, and women’s suffrage was never again severely challenged in Wyoming.