It was just four years after the end of the US Civil War that Wyoming, which has always been one of the most conservative states in the US, became the first place in the world to grant women the right to vote.
It all began with William Bright, who grew up in Virginia. Although a Southerner he served in the Union Army throughout the Civil War, after which he and his young family relocated westwards to Salt Lake City.
Bright followed the South Pass City gold rush in 1867, eager to make a fortune. He was joined in the spring of 1868 by his wife Julia and their young son William at which time it was a booming community of several thousand residents.
He was elected the representative for South Pass City in the territorial legislature and was the guy who introduced the revolutionary bill.
Bright was influenced to support universal suffrage by his young and attractive wife as well as by the redoubtable Esther Hobart Morris, a saloonkeeper who was later appointed the first female Justice of the Peace on 14 February 1870 and is revered as one of the pioneers of women’s suffrage. Although she only held office for just over eight months she was a remarkably successful judge.
The other important backer of the bill was Edward M. Lee, the Territorial Secretary, who argued it was unfair to think that African American males could now vote but his mother couldn’t.
Some of those who voted to enfranchise women did so for a range of motives apart from a desire for equality and fairness. They wanted to entice more members of the fairer sex to settle in the territory, since there were six times as many males as females living in Wyoming at the time.
It was an issue which crossed party political boundaries. The legislature had a majority of Democrats at the time it was passed, while Territorial Governor John A. Campbell was a Republican.
In 1882, Governor Hoyt explained how the persuasive William Bright had ensured his “joke” bill would have a good chance of success:
“He said to the Democrats: ‘We have a Republican Governor and a Democratic Assembly. Now, then, if we can carry this bill through the Assembly and the Governor vetoes it, we shall have made a point, you know; we shall have shown our liberality and lost nothing. But keep still; don’t say anything about it.’ They promised. He then went to the Republicans and told them that the Democrats were going to support his measure, and that if they did not want to lose capital they had better vote for it too. He didn’t think there would be enough of them to carry it, but the vote would be on record and thus defeat the game of the other party. And they likewise agreed to vote for it. So, when the bill came to a vote, it went right through! The members looked at each other in astonishment, for they hadn’t intended to do it, quite. Then they laughed, and said it was a good joke, but they had ‘got the Governor in a fix.’ So the bill went, in the course of time, to John A. Campbell, who was then Governor—and he promptly signed it!”
To his great credit Campbell supported the new bill and signed his name into history when he passed it on 10 December 1869. The text reads as follows:
An Act to Grant to the Women of Wyoming Territory the Right of Suffrage, and to Hold Office
Be it enacted by the Council and House of Representatives of the Territory of Wyoming:
Sec. 1. That every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this territory, may at every election to be holden under the laws thereof, cast her vote. And her rights to the elective franchise and to hold office shall be the same under the election laws of the territory, as those of electors.
Sec. 2. This act shall take effect and be in force from and after its passage.
Approved, December 10, 1869.
A Wyoming newspaper, The Cheyenne Leader, wrote: “We now expect at once quite an immigration of ladies to Wyoming.”
Some commentary following approval of the Bill:
The Wyoming Tribune: This is likely to be THE measure of the session, and we are glad our Legislature has taken the initiative in this movement, which is destined to become universal. Better appear to lead rather than hinder when a movement is inevitable.”
Susan Anthony, suffragist and civil rights leader: “Wyoming is the first place on God’s green earth which could consistently claim to be the land of the Free!”
The rest of the world’s governing bodies watched with folded arms and condescending smiles.
The fairer sex got their first chance to vote in September 1870 and although there were only about a thousand of them, they flocked to the polls.
Bill Nye, the editor of the Laramie Daily Boomerang at the time, wrote: “No rum was sold, women rode in carriages furnished by the two parties, and every man was straining himself to be a gentlemen because there were votes at stake. A Wyoming election, as I recall it, was a standing rebuke to every Eastern election I ever saw.”
The bill was almost repealed just two years later in 1871, as there were now few of the original representatives who passed it left in the House. Bright himself didn’t stand for re-election, turning his interests to other affairs. The reactionary efforts failed thanks to the resolute firmness of Governor Campbell who vetoed their plan.
Since it’s so interesting I decided to quote his entire opinion verbatim since it is a remarkable piece of progressive thinking:
I regret that a sense of duty compels me to dissent from your honorable body, with regard to any contemplated measure of public policy. ….A regard, however, for the rights of those whose interests are to be affected by it, and for what I believe to be the best interests of the territory, will not allow me to do so. The consideration besides, that the passage of this bill would, on the part of all those instrumental in bringing it about, be a declaration that the principles upon which the enfranchisement of women are urged, are false and untenable, and that our experience demonstrates this, influences me not a little, in my present action. …
Campbell refers to the uncharted waters in which Wyoming bravely sailed when the measure was approved two years previously:
So it was when two years ago the act which this bill designs to repeal was presented for my approval. There was at that time no experience to which I might refer, and test by its results the conclusions to which the application of certain universally admitted principles led me. In the absence of all such experience, I was driven to the application of principles which through the whole course of our national history have been powerfully and beneficially operative in making our institutions more and more popular, in framing laws more and more just and in securing amendments to our federal constitution.
If the ballot be an expression of the wish or a declaration of the will of the taxpayer as to the manner in which taxes should be levied and collected and revenues distributed, why should those who hold in their own right a large proportion of the wealth of the country be excluded from a voice in making the laws which regulate this whole subject? If again the ballot be for the physically weak, a guarantee of protection against aggressions and violence of the strong, upon which ground can the delicate bodily organism of woman be forbidden this shield for her protection? If once, more, each ballot be the declaration of the individual will of the person casting it as to the relative merit of opposed measures of men, surely the ability to judge and determine, the power of choice, does not depend upon sex, nor does womanhood deprive of personality. …. Yet, what is there but conjecture, prejudice and conservatism opposing the reform?
…To the statement so often made that the law which this bill is intended to repeal was passed thoughtlessly, and without proper consideration, I oppose the fact to which I have adverted, that the law perfectly conforms to all the other laws in relation to women upon our statute books; studied in connection with the other laws it would seem to have grown naturally from them. It harmonizes entirely with them and forms a fitting apex to the grand pyramid which is being built up as broadly and as surely throughout all of the States of the Union as it has been built up in Wyoming.
….In this territory women have manifested for its highest interests a devotion strong and ardent and intelligent. They have brought to public affairs clearness of understanding and a soundness of judgment which, considering their exclusion hitherto from practical participation in political agitations and movements, are worthy of the greatest admiration and above all, praise.
….For the first time in the history of our country we have a government to which the noble words of our magna charta of freedom may be applied, not as a mere figure of speech, but as expressing a simple grand truth, for it is a government which ‘derives all its just powers from the consent of the governed.’ We should pause long and weigh carefully the probable result of our action before consenting to change this government, a regard for the genius of our institutions—for the fundamental principles of American autonomy—and for the immutable principles of right and justice, will not permit me to sanction this change.
Compare this with the antiquated opinion of the editor of the Daily Leader who found a connection between universal suffrage and free love and loose morals:
The abolition of the useless statute conferring suffrage upon women will be regretted by none of the sex, save those emulous of an unenviable notoriety in the ranks of the suffrage shriekers, the unsexed and uncultivated, we had almost said unchaste, of the Territory. The question has its advocates among those of lax socialistic ideas, the Woodhulls and Tiltons of society. It has moreover the odor of free-loveism and depravity. About it, an inseparable odium attaches, as subversive of nature, a foul and rotten thing, which will be deprecated and discountenanced by all high minded and honorable persons of either sex.
Such attitudes would be laughable today but were still quite widespread on the Wild West frontier.
The reactionaries in the House who desired to disenfranchise the ladies needed a two-thirds majority to override the Governor’s veto, and they failed by just one vote. They went off to lick their wounded egos.
In 1873 Governor Campbell remarked to the Wyoming legislature:
“Two years more of observation of the practical working of the system have only served to deepen my conviction that what we, in this Territory, have done, has been well done, and that our system of impartial suffrage is an unqualified success.
No further efforts were made to turn back the pages of history.
Wyoming applied for statehood in 1889. A few members of Congress tried to reverse Wyoming’s suffrage status but the delegates of Wyoming declared they would rather remain a territory than become a state where the women were denied the right to vote.
Wyoming became the 44th state of the Union in 1890 with the slogan “The Equality State”.
The national suffrage convention in 1891 included this tribute: “Wyoming, all hail; the first true republic the world has ever seen.
Slowly but surely a few other states followed Wyoming’s daring lead.
It was only in 1920 that universal franchise was achieved on a national level and women throughout the US could go and vote.
In 1924 Wyoming once again led the way ahead when it elected the US’s first female Governor.
Wyoming was far from the head of the queue when it came to accepting gay marriage. This bill was only passed on 21 October 2014.
In 2015 the City of Laramie passed legislation forbidding discrimination against people in terms of housing, employment and access to public facilities on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Today South Pass City, witness to momentous events: a rough-and-ready frontier town which failed to survive when the gold ran out is officially a “ghost town” with a mere handful of residents but has secured a unique place in the history of political progress.