In less than two months, the state will mark the 150th anniversary of women in the former Territory of Wyoming being granted the right to vote. On Dec. 10, 1869, the first unconditional law in the country guaranteeing women the right to participate in the electoral process and hold public office was passed right here in Cheyenne.
Yet this historic achievement is currently being overshadowed by a controversy in the halls of state government that should never have existed in the first place: Whether to return the statue of suffragette Esther Hobart Morris to the area in front of the state Capitol.
It’s almost unbelievable that we’re having this debate. After all, we live in the “Equality State,” and the state Office of Tourism has declared 2019 the “Year of Wyoming Women.” Every time you turn around, someone is bragging about our place in history.
Yet in the same year we’re rightly honoring this milestone and all it represents, we’re arguing about whether a statue honoring one of the leaders of that movement deserves to return to her prior perch in front of “The People’s House.”
So far, a majority of state leaders overseeing the recent $300-plus million Capitol renovation project have decided to relegate the statue of the nation’s first female justice of the peace to the recently expanded underground corridor between the Capitol and the Herschler Building. In fact, at its most recent meeting earlier this month, members of the Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group voted 5-2 against moving the statue back to where it proudly stood for more than 50 years before the renovation work began.
Only Republican Gov. Mark Gordon and Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, a frequent champion of women’s rights, voted in support of moving the statue back where it belongs.
Among the arguments used by Oversight Group members to justify leaving this statue and one of Chief Washakie of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in the basement:
Both statues have been the victims of vandalism in the past and could be again in the future. Such damage is less likely in an area only open to the public during business hours and likely under the watchful eye of staff and/or security cameras.
Both statues have become weathered and are in need of repair. Also, the Morris statue was struck by a car in 1973, breaking it at the waist and leaving a foot-long crack on her right sleeve. Committee members approved using legislative funds to pay for the estimated $20,000 to $30,000 in repairs to the Morris statue and around $6,000 in work on the Chief Washakie statue. If we’re going to spend that kind of money, the argument seems to be, why not protect our investment?
By placing the statues in a large open area at the north end of the connector, the stage is set for a future Statuary Hall, similar to the one in Washington, D.C. Yet, if the talk of this plan is based in fact, no mention has been made of what other statues are envisioned for this space or how they will be funded.
Former state Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, an appointee to the group, said the restoration project was intended to restore the original view of the Capitol without any statues obstructing it.
That last argument is the most ridiculous of the bunch, and one that, frankly, we’re hearing for the first time more than four years after the renovation work began. While we heard lots of talk about the “removal of non-historic changes,” we never heard of any plans not to return the statues to their previous locations. It’s as if they hoped they could quietly shuffle them off to the basement and hope no one noticed (and since the engraved stone pedestals they previously stood on were recently spotted in the Capitol project’s “boneyard” with other construction debris, it’s clear they had no intention of using them again).
Before the recent committee vote was taken, Gov. Gordon echoed the comments made by many of the residents who have written letters to this newspaper arguing for the Morris statue’s return to its rightful place:
“There’s a tradition of taking a picture of Esther Hobart with the Capitol in the background,” Gordon said. “I think it would be nice to be able to continue that tradition.”
We agree. But more than a nice photo opp, the statues honor Wyoming’s past and show pride in its place in history. They also serve as a reminder of the ideals those who work in the Capitol should aspire to every day – including respecting and supporting those who have been in the minority and treated poorly in the past (though one could rightfully argue some of that continues to this day). Not to have these historic figures standing proudly in front of the Capitol feels like we’re ashamed of our past and are somehow trying to hide it.
Thankfully, the Oversight Group doesn’t have the final say. That belongs with the State Building Commission, which the governor chairs and includes the other four top elected officials, two of whom are women. Unfortunately, the commission isn’t scheduled to meet again until January, but nothing’s stopping them from calling a special meeting.
In this “Year of Wyoming Women,” the state’s top elected leaders need to do the only honorable thing and return Esther (and Chief Washakie) to her rightful place.