Statehood for Wyoming

Area 6: Westward Expansion and the United States (1840s-1890s)
EQ: How did westward expansion affect tensions within different regions of the U.S.?
Topic 3: The Role of Women’s Suffrage in the 51st Congress’s Wyoming Statehood Debate

Grade Level

Content Areas
Social Studies

Background for Teachers and Students
In October 1869, the Wyoming Territorial Legislature enfranchised women—gave them the right to vote, hold office and serve on juries. Twenty years later, the territory held a Constitutional Convention in September 1889 to draft the constitution for the proposed state of Wyoming. At this convention there was little opposition to women’s suffrage, although some delegates thought it might be an obstacle to statehood.

After the constitution was drafted, Territorial Gov. Francis E. Warren called a special election for Nov. 5, 1889, for voters to approve or reject the constitution. The vote was 6,272 in favor, 1,903 against.

Nearly four months later, on March 26, 1890, Joseph M. Carey, Wyoming’s territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress, introduced a bill into the 51st Congress calling for Wyoming to become a state. The House of Representatives passed the bill that day, voting 139-127; the Senate took longer—only beginning their debate on June 15, 1890. It eventually passed the Senate 29-18, on June 27, 1890. President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill into law July 10, 1890.

Senators and representatives discussed the question of women’s suffrage at length. Although this appeared to be the burning question in the 1890 Congress, Republicans had an additional agenda. Their margin in the Senate was tiny: 38 to 37. So they had a goal to create more Republican states, of which Wyoming would be one. With each new state would come two more senators.

Congressmen advanced various arguments against the prospect of women entering the public arena. They claimed it would make them less womanly, expose them to indelicate, inappropriate issues or  situations and, in general, cause legal, legislative and judicial systems to deteriorate.

Supporters countered that in some states, women were holding public office, with none of those dire results. Others, while personally opposed to women’s suffrage, felt that states and territories should be allowed to rule themselves without federal interference.

Not until 1920 did all American women get the vote, with the ratification of the 19th Constitutional Amendment.

Read “Wyoming Becomes a State: The Constitutional Convention and Statehood Debates of 1889 and 1890 and Their Aftermath

Learning Objectives
1. Students learn about the role of women’s suffrage in Wyoming statehood
2. Students learn why some U.S. representatives opposed women’s suffrage
3. Students learn why some U.S. representatives supported women’s suffrage
4. Students analyze the arguments in 2 and 3, above

One 45-minute class period

Materials required:

Lesson Plan

The exercise asks students, after reading the summary, the longer article and selections from the Congressional Record, to complete the Study Questions Chart analyzing representatives’ arguments.

Read the excerpt of Rep. Oates's speech opposing women's suffrage from the March 26, 1890, Congressional Record:

Mr. Oates: Education expels superstition and stupidity; it makes men and women shrewder, more inventive, cautious, and wary, but it does not make them honest, nor of itself make them safe custodians of governing power. It quickens thought and gives subtlety to the reasoning powers; it civilizes and humanizes individuals, but it does not and never can bestow upon any race or nation the capacity to govern. That depends more upon natural gifts than culture. An inborn love of liberty, integrity, superior courage, steadiness and fixedness of purpose, and a high sense of honor are the characteristics which must exist in those or at least a majority of those members of the community, states, or nation in which the governing power should be vested, in order to secure wise, steady, and beneficent republican government. These qualities may be heightened, sharpened, and made more active in the school-room, but they are not acquired there; they are god-given. All of these qualities are found in women only in rare instances. All of these qualities are not at all essential to woman to enable her to fill the sphere assigned to her by a wise Creator.

The high courage and masculine qualities of Joan of Arc, Elizabeth of England, and Catherine of Russia command the applause of men, but it is the timid, affectionate, effeminate, and confiding womanhood which commands our love, makes our hearts and homes happy, produces and matures the best and wisest of men. I like a woman who is a woman and appreciates the sphere to which God and the Bible have assigned her. I do not like a man-woman. She may be intelligent and full of learning, but when she assumes the performance of the rough duties and functions assigned by nature to man she becomes rough and tough and can no longer be the object of affection.

The assertion by the advocates of woman suffrage that giving her the right to vote will purify elections and make them more honest than if men alone exercised the franchise, is but a bald assertion, without any facts to support it. My information, derived from private sources, is that in this very Territory of Wyoming elections are quite as corrupt as in any other place or section of country in the United States. I am told that the buying and selling of votes among the women who vote is a common practice.

That women are better than men in some respects I am proud to concede and assert, but when thrown into the arena of business, its conflicting interests and contentions, and matters of government, they are no more honest than men; and I do not believe that they could ever bring themselves to regard the full measure and gravity of responsibility which the right of suffrage should impose.

In my judgment, woman has a higher sphere, and by nature is not adapted to the business of government. This is no denial to her of the rights of citizenship. Are not all of her rights as well protected by courts and juries, by the law of the land everywhere, as though she had the elective franchise? However intelligent women may be, however virtuous and good, they are not, in my judgment, proper custodians of political sovereignty. In the few cases where a limited franchise has been bestowed upon them it has been simply an experiment. Throughout all the ages it has never been considered a safe step to take in the affairs of government to make women the repositories of the governing power.

In a neighboring Territory to Wyoming, now the State of Washington, woman suffrage was given a fair trial for many years; yet when the people of that Territory formed their State constitution they wisely rejected it, thereby lifting their women out of the slough of politics and restoring them to their own god-given arena.

Read the excerpt of Rep. Kelley's speech supporting women's suffrage from the March 26, 1890, Congressional Record:
Mr. Kelley: [I]n the State of Kansas this is no new question, and I am free to say that I have been astounded at some of the remarks made here today in reference to this matter. Now, women are occupying to-day and have for years occupied public offices and have been eligible to [hold] office in that State. Many of them are county officers to-day—the county court clerks, registers of deeds, county superintendents of public instruction—and have been for years; and they make the best officers we have.

Mr. Pickler: Has it unsexed them?

Mr. Kelley: No, sir. They are councilmen, mayors, police judges, and they vote for all these officers. It does not hurt their looks; if such a thing were possible, I think it makes them better looking. They attend strictly to business, and when one of the constituents of the gentleman from Missouri came over the line with his bottle of Kansas City whisky and got only a little intoxicated in the city of Cottonwood Falls, and was arraigned before the police judge, who is a lady, and fined $15, and she threw in a fifteen-minute lecture, the gentleman immediately swore off on drinking and the court threw off the fine. This is supposed to be one of the reasons why the gentleman [Mr. Tarsney] from that district thinks prohibition in Kansas is a failure. 

Again, Mr. Speaker, I want to say for the information of those gentlemen that the assistant attorney-general of the State of Kansas to-day is a woman, and she has entire control of the legal department of the State of Kansas, because the attorney-general of the State of Kansas, who, if present, would have that control, is absent from the State, and has been for some time; and in his absence the assistant attorney-general takes charge. Nobody ever complained that she, as a lawyer, did not conduct the legal part of that State properly.

In fact it is universally understood that the assistant attorney-general of the State of Kansas is a much better lawyer than the attorney-general himself. [Laughter.] And I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, that if this proposition should become more popular and should extend from some of those progressive States of the West and Northwest even as far as the State of Tennessee, and if it should become necessary for the women of that State to vote in making a selection of Representatives in Congress, they would be just as wise in their selection as were the women in Wyoming, and I have no doubt that the State of Tennessee would be represented on this floor by gentlemen or ladies just as fit to represent it as the State of Wyoming will be when she is represented here by our worthy friend, Judge Carey.

Questions for reflection and further discussion

Using the Study Questions Chart, analyze Oates’ and Kelley’s arguments.

Download Study Questions Chart

1. Were the arguments of either Oates or Kelley valid?

2. Now that all women in the U.S. have been allowed to vote, serve on juries and hold office since 1920, do you think women’s suffrage has worked well, or badly?

3. Should any American adult be denied the franchise? If so, why? If not, why not?

4. In 1890, because women’s suffrage had not been tried on a large scale, or for a long time period (worldwide), is this a valid reason for some people’s caution about it then?