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On August 26, we’ll celebrate Women’s Equality Day, this year the centennial celebration of women gaining the constitutional right to vote.
But for more than 150 years, women in Wyoming have had the right to vote. It was a move the Legislature of the Wyoming Territory felt was necessary to increase the population and bring women to a state overwhelmingly populated by men.
While the history of women’s suffrage is filled with rural people acting on their beliefs, it was the men of rural Wyoming who made the first and most lasting impact.
According to the Laramie Daily Sentinel, on September 7, 1870, 69-year-old Louisa Swain rose early and put on her bonnet, apron and shawl. She picked up her pail and headed into town to buy some yeast from a local vendor. Along the way, she passed a polling place and decided to cast her ballot. Even though the polling place wasn’t officially open, elected officials asked her to come in and vote.
Mary Mountain, executive director for the Laramie Plains Museum, said that Swain’s age and appearance made her the perfect woman to cast the first ballot.
“There is no conclusive evidence regarding why Louisa was the first to vote that day,” Mountain wrote in a booklet on Laramie’s 150th celebration of women’s suffrage. “Some accounts indicated that the ladies in town selected her because of her age and the fact that she was a pioneer in the county. Others contend that it was merely happenstance. No matter which is true, her vote marked a true victory on the path to equal rights.”
It wasn’t that way for women in the rest of the country.
It wouldn’t be until August 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson supported the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. For the next year, the amendment went through the various state legislatures trying to get the necessary votes to be added to the Constitution.
Eight days after the Tennessee Legislature became the 36th state to approve of the amendment,
Eight days later, on August 26, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the amendment into effect in a quiet ceremony surrounded by a dozen women, including rival suffragette movement leaders Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt.
But for the women of Wyoming, little changed when Colby signed his name.
More than 50 years earlier, in 1869, Wyoming legislator William Bright introduced legislation that would give women over the age of 21 the right to vote. Voters had to be citizens or swear an oath that they were seeking citizenship.
On one hand, Bright felt that if Black men had the right to vote, his wife should too. On the other hand, Wyoming was populated by 6,000 men and only 1,000 women. It was thought that giving women the right to vote would lure them to the territory. Native American women and Chinese immigrants were barred from voting.
Mountain said the legislators wanted to bring more families into the territory.
“The lawmakers especially hoped the news would bring more women,” Mountain said.” There were six adult men in the territory for every adult woman, and there were very few children. Second, these Democrats in the Legislature hoped that once these women came to Wyoming, they would continue to vote for the party that had given them the vote in the first place. Third, the Democrats wanted to make John Campbell, the Republican governor, look bad. If they passed the bill, many assumed, Campbell would veto it. Here he was, their thinking went, a member of the party that supposedly championed the voting rights of the ex-slaves, but given a chance to extend the vote to women he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to do it.”
When the state was just starting out in 1868, Mountain said, Laramie was a “Hell On Wheels” town. Adventurous women came to the state looking for a new life, and businesswomen came looking for money. As the railroads brought in workers to extend the railroad tracks, they also brought in women to keep the workers entertained, she said.
At the same time, families frustrated with what was happening in the East after the Civil War came to the area to start over.
These women – from mothers and daughters to entrepreneurs and saloon keepers – were all affected by the legislation.
“It wasn’t just the right to vote,” Mountain said. “It gave women full rights. Other states had qualified rights. But this legislation extended those rights to the right to hold office and the right to hold property.”
On December 10, 1869, the legislation passed. Over the course of the next two decades, the law came under fire and the Legislature argued over whether to repeal it, but women’s suffrage remained.
“In 1889, when Wyoming was trying for statehood, the federal government said ‘If you want to become a state you’re going to have to repeal (women’s suffrage),’” Mountain said. “The men said they’d rather stay a territory than take that away those rights.”
In fact, the Legislature sent a telegram to Congress that said, “We will remain out of the Union 100 years rather than come in without the women.”
At that point, women didn’t have many rights. In some states, like Kentucky, it would take Josephine Henry, of Versailles, working to get the Married Women’s Property Rights Act passed in 1888. Prior to its passage, women’s couldn’t hold property, or enter into contracts, or have a will. In fact, prior to the law’s passage, husbands were entitled to all of their wives wages, had control over all of their property and were entitled to inherit all of his wife’s property should she die. Women, at that time, only received a third of their husband’s estate on his death, by law.
Henry worked tirelessly to pass the law, including heading to the state Legislature and making an impassioned speech asking if she could apply for citizenship like felons who’ve been released from prison could, as they had more rights than she.
After the passage of the law, Henry would go on to ensure separate living quarters for boys and girls in juvenile detention centers, as well as passing laws that required there to be female guards at jails and prisons and at least one female doctor at insane asylums.
At the same time in Wyoming, women were already holding office and making change. Esther Hobart Morris became the first female justice of the peace, serving in South Pass City, Wyoming, after being elected in 1870. That year the country’s first all-female jury took their seats, and the first woman bailiff, Martha Symon Boies took office, also in Wyoming. And before the country had ratified the 19th Amendment, Wyoming elected Estelle Reel Meyer to superintendent of public instruction in 1894, the country’s first female statewide elected official.
While the rest of the country watched, rural Wyoming led the country in providing women with the rights we consider basic now. But at the time, the small state of just over 7,000 was a leader in the progressive movement to provide women with the right to vote and more.