In Wyoming – where women got the right to vote, own property and hold office 50 years before the rest of the nation – the first female justice of the peace, Esther Hobart Morris, was appointed when her predecessor stepped down in response to the Women’s Suffrage Act.
Fast-forward almost 150 years, and the state will be celebrating all of 2019 as the “Year of Wyoming Women.”
In June 2016, Gov. Matt Mead created the Governor’s Council for the Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Celebration through an executive order. The council was tasked with planning a celebration in Wyoming between December 2019 and September 2020 that would honor Wyoming’s contribution to history, and foster broader recognition of that contribution beyond the state.
“Wyoming’s 150th women’s suffrage anniversary celebration gives visitors a chance to experience the West’s determination, resiliency and pioneering spirit,” said Wyoming Travel and Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober, a member of the council.
Significant events will be happening throughout the state, allowing visitors to learn about the history of women’s suffrage – along with the achievements of modern Wyoming women.
“We’re excited to see how unified communities across the state have become in celebration of Wyoming women, and we know visitors will share in this excitement,” Shober said.
It was at the very end of the first-ever Wyoming Territory Legislative Session in 1869 that lawmakers granted female suffrage. Wyoming’s was the first government in the world to do so under an unconditional and general franchise. The act was signed into law by the governor on Dec. 10, 1869, and on Sept. 6, 1870, the first vote was cast by a woman – Louisa Swain of Laramie – in a general election.
In 1890, Wyoming entered the Union as the 44th state with female suffrage intact – but even that did not come without struggle.
“When Wyoming officially applied for statehood later in the 19th century, the federal government said we could become a state as long as we abided by federal laws regarding women’s vote, which meant that they don’t,” said council member Kari Eakins with the Wyoming Department of Education. “And our Legislature replied by telegram, ‘We may stay out of the Union 100 years, but we will come in with our women.’”
In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution gave the vote to women nationwide.
But, Eakins said, the council doesn’t want to focus only on the past.
“We want this to be something that is relevant today, something that we can be proud of in Wyoming,” she said. “The role of the council is to honor our contributions to our history, and going beyond that, to encourage research and advocacy to the right, privilege and responsibility to vote.
“Basically, we are saying, ‘Hey, this is what was in our history,’ so people can see how important these rights still are today,” Eakins said.
Across Wyoming, chambers of commerce, local news outlets, museums, ranches and outdoor adventurers will join in the celebration all year long, hosting conferences and retreats and honoring Wyoming women.
Kristen Czaban, publisher of The Sheridan Press, said she fell into the mission of helping and supporting women a little bit by accident when she was asked to plan the first FAB (For, About, By) Women’s Conference in Sheridan.
“When The Press started publishing an annual fall magazine, my publisher at the time asked that the first edition focus on Wyoming women. Then he suggested we pair an event with the magazine. That’s how the FAB Women’s Conference came to be,” she said.
This year, the seventh annual conference will feature bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert, of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame, as the keynote speaker April 12.
Beyond the conference, Czaban said The Press has other projects in the works to celebrate the Year of Wyoming Women.
“Once a month, as near to the 10th of the month as our publication schedule allows, we’re highlighting a strong woman from the state. We hope that by doing this, we can encourage and inspire others to pursue their dreams,” she said.
Czaban said she has come to revel in the networking, learning and relationships that form when women gather to support each other.
“It really doesn’t matter who your mentor is – man, woman, colleague or friend – but having a community and a support system that cheers you on and straightens your shirt when you fall down is truly invaluable, and those are the kinds of relationships that we’ve aimed to cultivate,” she said.
In another fun twist, the women of Jackson Hole’s Roadhouse Brewing Co. and Snake River Brewing joined forces to craft a special Equality Brew in early March to honor International Women’s Day and the 150th anniversary of Wyoming women’s suffrage.
Theirs is a hoppy Belgian wit beer, brewed “in reverence to and continued action toward progress.” The collaboration is part of the national Pink Boots Brew Day, which last year garnered 260 participating breweries from 10 countries.
Equality Brew will launch at both breweries in mid-April.
“We’re very proud of our Wyoming roots and Wyoming’s history of strong women. It’s only natural that when we sought inspiration for the Equality Brew, we looked back to the suffragettes of Wyoming, and turned to collaborate with some of our fellow pioneering females in the brewing industry,” said Ariel Korber, marketing director of Snake River Brewing.
While the Wyoming Office of Tourism hopes the celebration will draw tourists, there also is a focus on education. Eakins said every third-grader in the state will receive a coloring book featuring 20 profiles of incredible Wyoming women.
“We have a lot of women who were the big ‘firsts’ in the state,” Eakins said. “We have so many to choose from, and we had to select 20 women that spanned a long length of time.”
The women featured include Thyra Thomson, who served as the Wyoming Secretary of State from 1963-87 and was the state’s longest-serving state official, and State Sen. Affie Ellis of Cheyenne. Ellis is a member of the Navajo Nation and the first Native American to sit in the Wyoming Senate.
“Sen. Ellis has one of the most powerful stories of why she ran for office, which was that she brought her daughter to the Legislature. There was only one woman in the Legislature, and she asked her mom, ‘Are women allowed to do this?’” Eakins said. “Seeing women doing this, and knowing about the possibilities, make a big difference to kids.”
Women’s suffrage was about more than voting, Eakins said. It was about voting and holding office and owning property.
“Hopefully, by teaching Wyoming students about why that was important, everybody can recognize how important it is to vote and to be civically engaged, and to look at the possibility of running for office or to serve your community,” she said.
“Government is open for you to participate. We want every citizen in the state of Wyoming to feel empowered to not only understand what is going on in their government and their community, but also to feel welcome to participate in their government and their community,” Eakins said.
Permanent exhibits and locations in Wyoming where visitors can celebrate the 150th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, as well as empowered women of Wyoming and the West:
n Wyoming House For Historic Women (Laramie) – The Louisa Swain Foundation was established in 2001 (under the former name of The Laramie Foundation). Since its inception, the Foundation has funded construction of a large plaza and the Wyoming House for Historic Women in historic downtown Laramie. The centerpiece of the plaza is a life-sized bronze sculpture of Swain, who on Sept. 6, 1870, became the first woman to cast a ballot under laws giving women full equality to men. Her ballot was cast just one block from the plaza.
The Wyoming House for Historic Women contains displays of the 13 honored women and is the site of various conferences and lectures pertaining to women’s history and issues.
Each year, The Louisa Swain Foundation re-enacts the historic first vote as part of the annual Louisa Swain Day. This year, they will mark the 11th annual day with events in celebration of Wyoming’s suffrage. More details for 2019 and 2020 are still being planned.
n Wyoming Capitol Restoration Project (Cheyenne) – Planned for reopening mid-2019. Wyoming’s Capitol is currently undergoing historic restoration as one of only 20 state capitols designated as a National Historic Landmark. The project includes restoring the Territorial House Chamber/Historic Supreme Court Chamber, where women’s suffrage for the territory (which was originally passed in 1869) was upheld as the territory sought statehood in the 1889 and officially entered the Union in 1890.
n Cowgirls of the West Museum (Cheyenne) – A nonprofit, volunteer museum dedicated to preserving Western culture and honoring the true spirit of the women who made and continue to make contributions to the West. While this museum does not have specific exhibits related to women’s suffrage, it does celebrate strong females of the West.
n Wyoming State Museum (Cheyenne) – Celebrate the anniversary by visiting the State Museum’s artifacts on display, including a wide variety of items representing life in Wyoming from prehistoric times to present. Make sure to check out the flag given to Wyoming as a gift when it entered the Union reading, “To Wyoming From Her Women. In Honor Of The State Constitution. 1890.”
Sample of events planned for 2019 that will celebrate the 150th anniversary of women’s right to vote, hold public office and more in Wyoming, as well as strong females throughout the state and U.S.:
n Nicolaysen “NIC” Art Museum (Casper) – This Casper museum is special because it was started by women. Today, women are still the driving force for the museum, including on the board and in key roles, such as Curator of Art Amanda Yonker. In 2019, the NIC has a pop-up gallery space that will celebrate female artists from Wyoming throughout the year. The first is Bri Martin in March and April.
In 2020, the NIC will celebrate the “Year of the Woman” exhibits, which will begin Jan. 1, 2020, with three rotations of art and 10 female artists.
n Proud Wyoming Woman Retreat (Sweetwater County), Sept. 13-15, 2019 – The second annual retreat. While more details are forthcoming, the first retreat included events such as fly fishing, yoga, 5-kilometer runs and lectures.
n WYLD West Women Retreat (Big Horn Mountains), June 19-23, 2019 – Come discover your true nature in the Big Horn Mountains with the support of like-minded women. There’s no better way to reconnect with and learn to trust your instincts than encountering novel experiences, so think of this as an adventure specifically designed to bring out your most powerful traits.
n Sister on the Fly (throughout Wyoming) – Sisters on the Fly hosts a variety of events that are especially for women, including Cowgirl College, women’s fly-fishing trips and Cowgirl Boot Camp. More details are being planned for 2019 dates and locations.
n Women’s Wellness Pack Trip in Lander and the Wind River area with Diamond 4 Ranch guide, July 21-27 and Aug. 4-10, 2019 – The all-inclusive women’s wellness pack trip includes a five-day female-focused pack trip, plus two nights at the ranch. The pack trip will feature hiking, yoga sessions, fly fishing and overall mountain wellness in a small-group setting. Each group is limited to 10 women.
n And She’s Dope Too Retreat (Wind River area) – 2019 dates to be announced
n Boyer YL Ranch (Savery) – Kimberly Coats, owner of the Boyer YL Ranch, is a 2018/19 Hike Like a Woman Ambassador, and can organize group hikes or private hikes through generally untraveled private land.
Female-specific events and women’s wilderness retreats:
n Women’s Mountain Biking and Gravel Biking Retreats
n Brazenly Wild Women’s Retreat – 2019 TBD dates to be announced
n Women in Wyoming Exhibit (Oct. 25, 2019, to Aug. 2, 2020) – A celebration of the incredible women of Wyoming at The Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Will feature large-scale portraits, as well as audio soundscape and interactive elements, with profiles from Chapter I: Breaking Boundaries, Chapter II: Filling the Void, Chapter III: Power and Chapter IV: Rising, as well as preview of Chapter V: The Cowgirl State.
n Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt – October 2019
n Medicine Bow Lodge – Hosts women-only retreats throughout the summer
n Hike Like a Woman – Hike Like A Woman is a woman-owned and operated small business based out of Laramie. The group was founded to empower women in the outdoors, including day hikes and backpacking trips. Hike groups include locations in Wyoming and throughout the country, as well as Hike Like a Woman ambassadors.