Questions have lingered for decades around what many see as an unlikely first: Wyoming’s pioneering passage of the Female Suffrage Act.
A new documentary by Lander’s Caldera Productions and Wyoming PBS explores those questions as it delves deep into the characters, attitudes and political machinations that resulted in the landmark 1869 territorial legislation.
“The State of Equality” premieres on Wyoming PBS on Dec. 12 and will be shown during suffrage events this week around the state.
The film digs deep into archival materials and features interviews with historians parsing what exactly went down.
It spotlights crucial figures in the suffrage story. It places Wyoming’s tale in the context of the larger story of voting rights across the United States, and it touches on how Wyoming has lived up to its legacy.
Ultimately, it aims to help people better understand the events at the root of Wyoming’s “Equality State” nickname.
In the film, University of Wyoming Professor of gender and women’s studies Cathy Connolly, who is also the Wyoming House minority floor leader, touches on several theories surrounding the event when she asks: Why did suffrage come first to Wyoming? Was it a joke? A tactic for attracting more residents to better ensure statehood? Were there racist elements at the heart of it?
“We’ll never know the full story,” Connolly says. “But that is a fuller story than simply: We’re Wyoming, we’re great, everybody’s equal.”
Others in the film caution against the state resting on its laurels.
“It certainly isn’t that ‘all is well in Wyoming’ because we have it written in the Constitution,” Wyoming’s first female Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kite says. “We have a lot of work to do to live up to that.”
The film team — director Geoff O’Gara, producer Sophie Barksdale and outreach/media coordinator Rose Steller Burke — recently talked to WyoFile about the making of “The State of Equality.” (O’Gara, Caldera’s executive producer, is a member of the WyoFile board of directors.)
WyoFile: Women’s suffrage is such a big topic. Talk about some of the challenges of narrowing it down and what, if anything, you had to keep out of the movie?
Sophie Barksdale: Fifty-six minutes is just not that long. There are some wonderful personal stories of characters that we only mention or get to touch on in the film — Anna Dickinson, Secretary Lee, Theresa Jenkins. Obviously the suffrage story is wider than just the U.S. and there were many crossovers with American suffragists and International suffragists, but to keep the story cohesive we had to keep it U.S. oriented. The Chinese American women’s suffrage story also did not make it as we were not able to cover it well within that timeframe and so it had to be left out. The other challenge was that women were just not visible in terms of public life, record keeping, photographs, etcetera in the late 1800s. So primary documents that tell this story from a woman’s perspective are hard to find and hard to illustrate in film. I read an article by Bettany Hughes, a historian from the UK, who gave a very interesting figure that while women have always been approximately 50% of the population, they only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history.
Rose Steller Burke: So many great stories were not included or just brushed on because of time. For example, Estelle Reel’s historic election to statewide office and later appointment into the federal cabinet was left out. Due to time, the experiences for women of color in Wyoming were just brushed on. I also wish the film could have expanded on how voting women in Wyoming changed the political landscape in the state and greatly helped their fellow women get elected into positions of power. Also, I wish the film could have delved deeper into the experiences of today’s Wyoming women. Where is Wyoming living up to its “Equality State” motto and where is it not?
Geoff O’Gara: There was a little bit of pressure to keep the doc purely historical, and not delve into today’s issues. Anyone who studies history uses it to illuminate where we are today, and all of our historians in the documentary wanted to say some things about how Wyoming has fared since its groundbreaking legislation in 1869. Not so well, if you look at the gender wage gap, or the small number of women in the Legislature. That’s in the documentary, though there could have been more. Every time this film is shown, there ought to be an audience discussion afterward about: “How are we doing today?”
WF: You started this project at the beginning of 2018. How did you go about piecing this 150-year-old story together in a way that honors the subject matter?
SB: It has been a collaborative process from the beginning, with a focus on trying to maintain a gender balance in important roles. We hired external researchers both locally and nationally as well as conducted our own research. It was important to us that a majority of our historians and interviewees were women telling this story. We compiled a potential participant list, pre-interviewed our participants and then narrowed our interviewees from there. Next the Caldera team worked with director of photography Kyle Nicholoff and his crew at Wyoming PBS to film interviews in a variety of locations, including Washington, D.C., South Pass City, Cheyenne, Laramie, Riverton and Atlantic City.
GO: From the beginning I have been sensitive to the fact that I am an older, white guy, producing a documentary on women’s suffrage. Early on a colleague of mine said to me, “Geoff, there are a lot of women with the skills to produce this documentary.” I would remember that down the road when I sat down with the Caldera Productions team for a round-table review of the script’s third draft. At that point, Sophie Barksdale had become co-producer, but my control over the story I’d crafted meant the issue remained alive. All the team members happen to be young women. They were critical and outspoken. I kind of circled the wagons on the script, and probably came across a bit sullen. The conversation was often among them, while I took notes. In the end, some of the suggestions ended up in the final version … but some didn’t.
WF: What are some things you learned that surprised you during the making of the film?
SB: What surprised me during the making of the film, beyond the fact that Wyoming really was first to pass and sustain unconditional woman suffrage, was that there really wasn’t open agitation for suffrage from Wyoming women at the time the suffrage bill was passed. Growing up you hear about the protests involved, the violence, bricks through windows, the arrests, the force feeding, the mistreatment of suffragettes and none of that happened in Wyoming. It is its own very unique story. The other surprising and incredibly interesting thing to me was discovering more about the origin myths we tell ourselves: Wyoming women’s suffrage began over a tea party; Seneca Falls was the beginning of the women’s rights movement … At some point these stories become “fact,” so remembering to ask, “who is writing this ‘history’ and why?” is really important.
RB: Before working on the film I knew a bit about the history of women’s suffrage in Wyoming, but didn’t appreciate how many years it took for the national women’s suffrage movement to catch up to the Western states. Fifty years is a long time between Wyoming passing its law and the passage of the 19th Amendment. I was also surprised that the U.S. admitted Wyoming into the Union as a State with women’s suffrage, which directly contradicted the U.S. Constitution. While it was a huge point of debate, I was proud to learn that Wyoming held firm on women’s suffrage at this critical moment. Last, the film opened my eyes to how much Wyoming was the “Wild West” back then and how the pioneering spirit of the day really broke down barriers, labels and roles. Equality was a necessity for survival in a lot of cases.
GO: I was skeptical of the triumphalist version of Wyoming women’s suffrage. I knew the motives were more complicated than simply Wyoming men’s good will toward the other gender. And we try to explain the mix of boosterism, racism and other elements that went into the suffrage effort in Wyoming. But when we looked at the state Constitution, and the things the territorial Legislature put into law for women’s rights beyond suffrage, it was clear that among some of the legislators, there was a real belief in gender equality. Frankly, that surprised me.
WF: And finally, what are the main messages, lessons or discussion points you hope audiences take away from the film?
SB: Wyoming has a lot to be proud of in terms of women firsts, but I hope the audience can also talk about the need for follow-up, to look at the status of women in Wyoming today and acknowledge that there is still work to do. One of our historians said “Every generation has to determine what its definition of equality is and how best to achieve it.” The other takeaway for me is history doesn’t occur in neat and isolated silos. There is always a larger context. I hope audiences will take the time to think about the context of both the history in the film, and where we are today.
RB: Wyoming and the West really led the way on women’s suffrage. Without normalizing it out West, the suffrage and the equal rights movement for women may not have happened. It wasn’t inevitable. Wyoming being first on unconditional women’s suffrage (and not repealing the law) is a big deal and we should be proud of this history. My hope is that the film can be a launchpad to discuss how Wyoming’s history impacts our citizens today. How do you view equality in Wyoming today? What does it mean to live in “The Equality State”? Is our state’s motto a reminder of our history or a goal we are hoping to achieve? If it is the latter, how do we get there?
GO: I’m not sure the audience will actually distinguish the words in the closing chorale, music by Anne Guzzo, words by Ann McCutchan, but the final line, repeated, is: “Much to do, much to do.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.