A century and a half ago, when Wyoming was a wild and ranging territory home to few souls and even fewer laws, its first territorial Legislature convened in the train town of Cheyenne — which had only months before been declared the temporary capital — to begin to build a legislative framework.
Amid the raft of laws passed that session for the fledgling territory was one that vaulted Wyoming into the international spotlight. Council Bill 70, which was signed into law on Dec. 10, 1869, granted women the right to vote and hold office.
It was the first unconditional law in the U.S. that permanently guaranteed women the right to vote and hold office, and it came a full 50 years before states ratified the 19th Amendment.
It wasn’t Wyoming’s only claim to a gender-equity first. Add to that the nation’s first woman to be appointed public office, the first female jurors and the first female governor. In a nod to the law — which cemented Wyoming’s legacy as a pioneer of suffrage worldwide — the state adopted its “Equality State” nickname.
“We were a global beacon of hope,” Sen. Tara Nethercott, (R-Cheyenne) said last week. That kind of grandiose statement, she acknowledged, could easily be dismissed as hyperbole. “But we were.”
With thin historical records, it’s difficult to know how the debate unfolded in those legislative chambers, and for decades, questions and misrepresentations have lingered around a first that strikes many as unlikely.
One thing is certain: The passage of women’s suffrage in Wyoming — and how it played into the larger and more protracted story of suffrage across the United States — is not a simple tale. It’s nuanced and complicated, surprising at turns, muddled by differing accounts and stained in places by racism, sexism and power plays.
But it is crucial to Wyoming’s identity, and it will be center stage through the next year as the state celebrates the 150th anniversary of the landmark passage.
In light of the events, some women hope that if nothing else, residents gain a deeper awareness of the state’s foundational achievement. That could, perhaps, lead to a more equitable next 150 years.
“I think there is a point here, a lesson that we can take from this history,” said Robin Hill, who represents the League of Women Voters of Wyoming on the Governor’s Council for Women’s Suffrage Celebration. “The point is that even this kind of awkward accomplishment, that took place in fits and starts and with mixed motivations, it’s something we should be proud of.”
A plain old good thing
Wyoming might not at first blush seem the likeliest women’s rights champion. But the fact is, a host of factors lined up to make the territory ideally suitable for the change.
In the years of Reconstruction following the Civil War, a national discourse had ensued about citizenship and voting rights, so the issue was very much in the ether. Also, in terms of mechanics, suffrage was easier to pass in territories than states.
“The suffrage movement and a lot of those ideas, they started in the East,” said Jennifer Helton, who grew up in Wyoming and is now a professor of history at California’s Ohlone College. “But they are hard to enact in the East. But when people come West, you’ve got newer governments that are smaller, you don’t have as many vested interests. I think it’s easier to do in the West kind of institutionally.”
Plus, “I do think there is some truth to the notion that when women come West … a lot of them come and they are doing stuff that is outside of traditional gender roles,” Helton said. “So when women say, ‘hey we want to vote too,’ people are already kind of used to seeing women playing important roles in the community.”
Not that all the motivations behind the passage were pure. History shows that for Southern Democrats in particular, supporting suffrage was rooted in a belief that upper-class white women should have the right to vote before — or at least concurrent with — African-American men and other minorities.
And, Wyoming’s suffrage act did not empower everyone. Most Native Americans weren’t granted that right until they gained citizenship in 1924.
“All of the reasons why Wyoming got the vote first, they are complicated, they are nuanced and they bring up a lot of issues that aren’t very pleasant,” said Renee Laegreid, a professor of history at the University of Wyoming and faculty representative on the Governor’s Council for the Women’s Suffrage Celebration.
Other interpretations pose that suffrage was passed as a joke, or a tactic to bring more people to the territory to secure statehood.
And yet the integrity of the decision can’t be ignored.
“The motives were probably mixed, some of them are maybe not admirable,” Hill said. “And yet, some people probably did think this was a plain old good thing, a matter of civil rights.”
Staid, rather than sensational
Once suffrage passed in Wyoming, it stuck. That, historian Helton notes, was rare. There was one attempt to repeal the measure by Democrats, but it failed.
“There’s never again any real challenge to women’s suffrage in Wyoming after that,” Helton said. “And I think if you want to say what kind of makes Wyoming exceptional in this story, it’s actually that. Because there are other places where women get the vote, and then it’s taken away.”
The state also followed the passage with other notable gestures of equal rights. In 1889, as it attempted to gain statehood, Wyoming famously refused to join the union if its suffrage laws were not upheld, sending a telegram to Congress stating: “We will remain out of the Union 100 years rather than come in without the women.”
“The people in power, they do in fact protect women’s suffrage,” Helton said. “When they need to, they step up and do it, both in the territorial period and later. I think that’s something the state should be proud of.”
One thing Wyoming did not have, Hill said, was a lot of drama. There are no stories of riots, high-profile arrests or suffrage martyrs.
That could be part of the reason, she said, why there’s not as much broad awareness of Wyoming’s suffrage legacy as she would expect.
In Wyoming, suffrage passed with little hullabaloo, “and I think that’s one of the reasons we don’t have the attention, the kind of notoriety that it deserves,” Hill said. “Our heroes are staid, not sensational.”
150 years later
Today, if you gauge Wyoming’s gender equality landscape by measurements like wage gap, female representation in the state Legislature and domestic violence protections, it appears the state that started out ahead has fallen behind. The Wyoming Women’s Foundation ranks the state 49th in the country in pay gap and, at 15%, Wyoming’s female representation in the Legislature is among the lowest in the country.
After galloping first out of the suffrage gate and following with a few decades good progress, Wyoming’s pace slowed, Laegreid said.
“We started off great, and then it fizzles,” she said.
Helton echoed that.
“In the early days, there’s a lot of women getting elected and running and being influential in politics,” she said. “Now I would say that’s less so. And the number of women in state office are not totally dissimilar to what they were at the early part of the 20th century. Which in the early part of the 20th century was pioneering, and today is not.”
Laegreid said she thinks today’s women still face the stigma that suffragettes did. “Being an ambitious women isn’t a good thing. It’s a positive thing for men and it isn’t for women.”
Others say it’s more complicated than the numbers convey.
Hill called criticism of female political representation “a bit of a straw man.
“Women who want to run for office, can run for office,” she said. “I just don’t see any villains in the picture. I think that women choose to do what they want.”
It’s important to acknowledge that the gender issues do exist and to focus on how to improve them, Nethercott said, but it doesn’t mean Wyoming is rife with systemic discrimination.
Today’s women can learn from early suffrage characters like the state’s first justice of the peace Esther Hobart Morris, she said. Morris was by all accounts a fine justice with a stellar record and yet correspondence reveals that she felt unprepared, unqualified and out of her depth.
“A lot of women I think experience a lot of those insecurities,” Nethercott said, which could translate into not applying for higher-paying jobs, or not risking an election run. “There’s a lot to be learned from a woman from 150 years ago who had the courage to do the job, and she did it well.”
Women in politics
It isn’t as if there are no women participating in Wyoming politics.
“Women are at the table,” said Rep. Andi Clifford (D-Riverton). “There’s a few of us, but there needs to be a lot more.”
Many of the 14 female members of the Legislature are relative newcomers to politics, and represent minority interests like Democrats, Native Americans and the LGBTQ+ community.
At least one was directly inspired to run to ensure women were participants in Wyoming politics.
In 2018, Sen. Affie Ellis (R.-Cheyenne) took her 8-year-old daughter to watch the state Senate debate. As they peered into the chamber of nearly all men, she said, her daughter asked her if women were allowed to run for the Senate. Ellis had just heard that the body’s lone female was about to retire.
“This notion of having a Senate with no women stuck with me,” she said. Ellis decided to run. “If we’re going to have the voice of a young working mom in the Senate, it might as well be me,” she remembers thinking.
Another female legislator was motivated to run, she says, by men.
“I have to say, seeing some very inept men in office was genuinely very motivating to me,” said Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Laramie). “I remember thinking, ‘well I don’t know if I’m great, but I know that I could do better than that.’”
Many female legislators say the job isn’t for everyone. It requires thick skin and huge commitment. None complained about being in the female minority. Most expressed satisfaction in representing their communities.
“Before we’re gaveled in, we’re people. When we gavel out, we’re people,” Clifford said. “It’s the relationships that I have with people … that help me focus and look beyond that.”
The hard work
With its complicated history, there are mixed feelings about the suffrage anniversary.
“I feel this real disconnect, that folks want to celebrate our past without doing the hard work of guaranteeing a better future,” Burlingame said.
What would that hard work entail? Leaning into challenging conversations, acknowledging the history with all its flaws and growing, she said. “I do think our history shows that Wyoming can do the hard work when we pull together.”
Ellis, an attorney, said that as someone who has spent a lot of time working on federal Indian law and policy, the history of how natives have been treated can’t be ignored.
“I think the hard part is finding an appropriate way to still celebrate the suffrage movement and what that meant, because it was a huge step, without forgetting that it didn’t necessarily mean suffrage for minority women,” Ellis said.
Clifford too wrestles with that. She has been asked to walk in the Rose Bowl Parade for the upcoming 100th anniversary of national suffrage.
“People say, your ancestors weren’t allowed to vote. And I said, yes, they weren’t, but we vote now,” she said. “I’m able to vote, and I’m at the table and I’m walking to honor them.”
Many women agree on one thing: the anniversary is a pivotal opportunity for Wyoming to learn, understand and tell its foundational story.
“There’s so many layers to capturing this story,” Ellis said. “I think that’s the most important thing about this year is to understand it all. It’s about bridging what that history means.”