One hundred and fifty years ago today, Gov. John Allen Campbell signed the bill that granted the women of Wyoming Territory full political equality — the right to vote and to serve in public office. With the stroke of his pen, Campbell made Wyoming into what 19th century suffragists called “The First True Republic.”
Why was Wyoming first? Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, activists across the nation made the case for women’s rights. Many state and territorial legislatures debated women’s suffrage. Several came close, though none actually passed it.
But Wyoming did. The territory was born in the aftermath of the Civil War, and so was Wyoming’s grant of women’s suffrage. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but white Americans were divided on the question of voting rights for freed slaves. The 14th and 15th Amendments, pushed by Radical Republicans and ratified in 1868 and 1870, conferred birthright citizenship and protected the voting rights of African American men. Women’s voting rights, however, were not included.
The territory of Wyoming was created in 1868, in the midst of these debates. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Republicans to govern the new territory. Equal rights were not abstract questions to these leaders.
Both Gov. John Campbell and Territorial Secretary Edward Lee were battle-hardened veterans of the Union Army. Lee had spent months in Confederate prisons; his brother died because of the mistreatment he had received at Andersonville. Campbell spent the years after the war implementing federal Reconstruction policy in the South. Both men had laid down their lives to end slavery. Both came to believe that voting rights for women were the next logical step in the evolution of American freedom.
Though territorial Wyoming had no formal women’s organizations, the ideas of the movement were in the air. In South Pass, Esther Morris was a committed suffragist whose nieces worked on Susan B. Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution. In Cheyenne, Amalia Post, a businesswoman and wife of a prominent banker, was a strong believer in women’s rights. Both women would eventually be granted lifetime vice presidencies of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in recognition of their role in promoting suffrage.
Wyoming’s white population, of course, did not consist solely of feminists and Radical Republicans. The region around South Pass was home to many Democrats and Southerners opposed to black suffrage.
Indeed, during Wyoming’s September 1869 election, some whites incited a riot at the polling station to prevent black men from voting. The U.S. marshall, with gun drawn, had to escort black voters to the polls. Calls to exterminate indigenous peoples and open their lands for white settlement regularly appeared in the town’s press.
It may seem contradictory, but it was the representatives of this community of unreconstructed Democrats who pushed the radical women’s rights agenda through Wyoming’s first legislative session. The September 1869 election produced an all-Democratic legislature. Representatives from South Pass, likely influenced by Morris and her male suffrage allies, introduced a host of measures that promoted women’s economic equality, including one of the nation’s first equal pay laws.
South Pass Democrat William Bright, a Virginian by birth, was the creator of the suffrage bill. Bright’s wife, Julia, was a supporter of women’s suffrage. An opponent of the recently ratified 14th Amendment, he felt that if black men were to vote in a Reconstructed nation, there was no reason to deny the same rights to women.
Bright’s colleagues in the legislature no doubt hoped that doubling the size of the white electorate would ensure white control of the territory, and perhaps attract more women to the region. They also hoped that grateful women would vote Democratic.
But mostly, they didn’t. In the 1870 election, the Republican party embraced suffrage and fielded women candidates. No women won office, but Republicans made substantial gains, a fact which newspapers attributed to the presence of women voters.
So in 1871, the Democrats attempted to repeal suffrage. Gov. Campbell vetoed their bill, declaring, “what is there but conjecture, prejudice and conservatism opposing this reform?” From that point on, Wyoming was committed to suffrage. Activists across the county continued to fight the good fight, with the support of Wyoming politicians and activists. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s women serenely voted on.
Women also held public office. Following the trail blazed by Morris, who was appointed justice of the peace in South Pass in 1870, women were elected justices of the peace, served on school boards and were active in party politics. By the 1890s, Wyoming’s public education system was run almost entirely by elected female officials.
Yet equal rights for women did not mean equal rights for all. The suffrage law applied to all women who were citizens, including black women and naturalized immigrants. But indigenous women in Wyoming could not become U.S. citizens unless they renounced their tribal affiliation. Most native women could not vote until 1924, when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act.
White Wyoming women, like white men, benefitted from the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Women who homesteaded often did so on lands taken from Wyoming’s tribes as a result of the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act.
Wyoming’s Estelle Reel made history when, in 1898, she became the first woman to hold a federal appointment in her role as National Superintendent of Indian Schools. But she presided over the federal government’s Indian boarding schools, which today are notorious for the abuse of native children and their attempts to exterminate native culture.
What does suffrage mean for us today?
Growing up in Wyoming’s public schools in the ‘70s, I had no idea I was being educated in a system that was shaped by some of the first elected women in the history of democracy. Apart from one brief mention in fourth grade, Wyoming’s place in the history of women’s rights received little attention in my education.
Wyoming has every reason to be proud of its role in the long historical process of expanding equality. And, at the same time, to recognize that this progress was not progress for all. Work remains to be done. But the courage to embrace radical innovation is part of Wyoming’s heritage. That is worth keeping in mind as we move into the future.