The 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has arrived, a moment to celebrate women’s right to vote and reflect on the way gender inflects our politics today. But there is another milestone in women’s suffrage in the United States that took place a whole 50 years earlier, a breakthrough moment that paved the way for the epochal event of 1920, and it originated in the unlikely setting of a whiskey-soaked gold mining town on the American frontier.
In 1869, half a century before we inscribed in the nation’s Constitution that the right to vote could not be denied “on account of sex,” at a time when women were barred from participating in government elections all over the world, the Wyoming territorial legislature recognized the right of women to cast ballots on an equal footing with men. It’s one of those historic transitions overlooked in part because there is so little documentation of how it came about, and in part because it was largely left out by hagiographic myth-makers like Susan B. Anthony.
The Wyoming Territory was newly formed in the fall of 1869, and few of its legislators had any experience in government. They were Democrats, which in those post-Civil War days meant many were from the South, in some cases Confederate war veterans, joining the gold rushes out West in search of a new beginning. Yet when the legislators gathered in Cheyenne — barely more than a tent city along the newly laid track of the transcontinental railroad — they boldly erased gender as a disqualification for casting a ballot … and didn’t stop there. They banned wage discrimination against women teachers, and considered a bill recognizing the right of women to own property.
Generations later, we take a lot of that for granted. It’s hard to imagine a nation where women were arrested merely for trying to check the boxes on a ballot. Suffragist Anthony voted in New York in 1872, hoping a federal court would affirm that the recently passed 14th Amendment, which protected the “privileges and immunities” of citizens, guaranteed her and other women the right to vote. A federal judge — male, of course — disagreed, and fined her $100.
Historians date the women’s suffrage movement in the United States to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, when Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other activists — many experienced campaigners in the abolition movement — gathered in New York and passed a declaration demanding suffrage. Recent scholarship, led by Lisa Tretrault and her graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University, suggests the voting rights drive took root earlier as an offshoot of the early 19th-century temperance movement.
Neither of those progressive causes — abolition or temperance — were in evidence in the little Rocky Mountain town of South Pass City, a booming burg of gold miners with 20 saloons serving a few thousand people. One of the saloon-keepers was William Bright, a Virginian who had served in the Union Army. Bright’s first act of political activism was to chair a meeting in August of 1869 to oppose the granting of voting rights to Blacks. It would be this man, from this town, who would introduce a women’s suffrage bill in the territorial legislature in December 1869.
The opposition to the Black vote among South Pass City’s rough and ready miners was so strong that when a few Blacks (who worked in livery stables, saloons and mercantiles) came to the polls to elect the first territorial legislature, in September 1869, the threat of violence prompted an escort of armed law enforcement.
Bright was one of the men elected to that first legislature, and his suffrage bill was the last legislation introduced at the December session. One can only speculate — no record of debates was kept at the legislature in 1869, and newspaper coverage amounted to only a few paragraphs — what motivated him.
Some historians have tried to make the case that Esther Hobart Morris, a South Pass resident who had been a few degrees of separation from the suffrage movement in New York before moving west, had persuaded South Pass legislators to support the women’s vote during a tea party in South Pass City. But letters from her son suggest she didn’t meet Bright until after suffrage had passed. (In 1870, the year after suffrage passed, Morris would become the first female justice of the peace in the country.)
A more likely candidate for the role of suffrage proponent would be Julia Bright, William’s spouse, who was well educated and had been involved in suffrage campaigns in the Northwest. But there’s no documentary evidence of her role either.
There is also speculation, based on 1870 debates during suffrage repeal attempts, that Bright’s 1869 bill was a joke among inexperienced legislators, and surprised everyone by passing.
More credibly, in a territory seeking the requisite population to achieve statehood, territorial legislators were discussing how suffrage might entice more women to move west, with families in tow. Other western territorial legislatures, including Washington and Nebraska, had considered women’s suffrage for similar reasons, but the bills failed to pass.
Finally, newspaper accounts and anecdotal history suggests Bright was one of many transplanted Southerners motivated in part by a belief that the votes of white women would offset the new votes of people of color. “That was logic to a man born in Virginia,” says former Wyoming Secretary of State Kathy Karpan, whose office oversaw Wyoming elections in the 1990s. A Colorado newspaper in 1902 quoted Bright saying that he believed his wife’s vote was better than that of “convicts and idiots.”
The reason women’s suffrage passed in Wyoming in 1869 may be all or none of the above. As Jayne Mockler, a former Wyoming legislator, says: “Sometimes you do the right thing for the wrong reasons.”
But by the time Wyoming put in its application to the U.S. Congress for statehood in 1890 — by fudging the required headcount of 60,000 residents; the touted influx of suffrage-inspired women never materialized — there seem to have been genuinely idealistic suffragists among the delegates (all male, as usual) to the Constitutional convention in Cheyenne. They included in the state constitution not just suffrage — despite a threat that Congress would reject any state that gave women the vote — but a much broader statement of women’s rights: “Both male and female Citizens of the State, shall equally enjoy all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”
With the United States unable, so far, to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment recognizing equal rights regardless of sex, Wyoming again appears to be leading the way. In this case, by a century, and counting.
Geoffrey O’Gara serves on WyoFile’s board of directors.