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The Online Encyclopedia of Wyoming History

Women's Suffrage and Women's Rights

Women's Suffrage and Women's Rights

The years 2019 and 2020 in Wyoming mark anniversaries of crucial milestones in women’s rights. In 1869, 150 years ago, Wyoming’s territorial legislature passed a law granting women the right to vote, and Gov. John Campbell signed the bill into law on Dec. 10. The following year, in March, women first served on juries in Laramie and on Sept. 6, 1870, also in Laramie, Louisa Swain became the first Wyoming woman to cast a ballot under the world’s first law granting women equal and unrestricted voting rights with men. On Jan. 27, 1920, Wyoming became the 27th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment became part of the Constitution when Tennessee ratified it on August 18 of that year, making votes for women the law of the land. And  on January 26, 1973, Wyoming became the 23rd state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

But there’s far more to the story than these bare facts suggest. See below for links to articles about the events and people involved, texts of the territorial legislation and of the part of the Wyoming Constitution that confirmed voting rights for women in 1890, a list of firsts for women in Wyoming, a map locating historic Wyoming sites related to women’s suffrage and much, much more.

And finally, the Wyoming Office of Tourism designated 2019 as “The Year of Wyoming Women,” to celebrate the anniversaries. Find more at “Wyoming: Home of the Women’s Vote.”

Do check back, as we will be adding more content on these topics throughout the year. 

Votes for Women in Wyoming Territory

In the fall of 1869, lawmakers in Wyoming’s first territorial legislature passed a bill allowing women the right to vote. The governor signed the bill into law Dec. 10, 1869, making the territory the first government in the world to grant full voting rights to women. The lawmakers mixed partisan politics, racial fears and an eye for national publicity in with a desire among some, at least, to do the right thing.

Esther Hobart Morris, appointed justice of the peace in South Pass City in 1870, was the first woman in the nation to hold public office. While she is notable for that and for her longtime advocacy for women’s rights, much of her fame comes from something she almost certainly didn’t do.

According to newspapers at the time, Louisa Swain, 70, of Laramie, was the first woman in Wyoming Territory to cast a vote under the new law granting full suffrage to women.

In 1870, Amalia Post of Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, became one of the first women to serve on a jury in the United States. Soon, she began advocating for women’s rights on a national level. She was an independent businesswoman from the time her first husband abandoned her in Denver in the early 1860s, through her marriage to her second husband, Cheyenne banker and politician Morton Post and up to the time of her death in 1897.

A look at the law, an anecdote from the election and some population statistics.

Estimates of the numbers of women who voted in the principal towns of Wyoming Territory, and a review of the methods used to make those estimates.

Statehood and Women's Rights

Some delegates drawing up a new state constitution in 1889 feared that, once Wyoming’s statehood came before Congress, continuing to allow women to vote would jeopardize Wyoming’s chances of becoming a state. And they were right.

Suffragist and temperance orator Theresa Jenkins delivered a key address at Wyoming’s statehood celebration on July 23, 1890. Later, she spoke widely in Colorado and other states, promoting Wyoming’s example in women’s rights, and spoke at the 1920 W.C.T.U. World's Convention in London.

Educator Estelle Reel fought hard to obtain the Republican nomination for Wyoming superintendent of public instruction in 1894, after which she became the first woman in Wyoming elected to a statewide office. In 1898, President McKinley named her national superintendent of Indian schools.

Mary Godat Bellamy, Wyoming’s first woman legislator, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1910, where she sponsored bills aimed at improving the lives of women and children. She was active as well in the national movement for votes for women.

Susan Wissler, elected mayor of Dayton, Wyo., in 1912, was Wyoming’s first woman mayor and possibly the second in the nation. Promising to act “without fear or favor,” she served three terms, with some success cleaning up local saloon and gambling elements, all while running her own millinery and dry-goods business.

Turning heads and changing minds, Inez Milholland helped galvanize women nationwide in their long campaign for the vote. Years of persistent demonstrations—sometimes violently opposed—climaxed in 1916, just weeks before her early death, in a final speaking tour across Wyoming and the West.

Nellie Tayloe Ross, a Democrat, was elected governor of Wyoming a month after her governor husband, William Ross, died of appendicitis in the fall of 1924. She ran because of respect for her husband’s Progressive ideas and also as a result of her own ambition. She lost her bid for re-election in 1926, but went on to figure prominently in the leadership of the national Democratic Party. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her to direct the U.S. Mint after he took office in 1933, a job she held for 20 years. She died in Washington in 1977, at the age of 101.

In 1919, 50 years after Wyoming women won the right to vote, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the same rights nationwide. Before the measure could become law, however, 36 of the 48 states would have to ratify it. Wyoming suffragists organized for a final push.

Women's Rights Pioneers

In May 1950, Louise Spinner Graf served as foreman of a jury in Green River, Wyo.—practically the first Wyoming jury to include women since 1871. The jury convicted Otto Long of second-degree murder. Afterward, Long’s attorney blamed the outcome on “those damn women.” Women have served successfully on Wyoming juries ever since.

The popular Republican Thyra Thomson served as Wyoming’s secretary of state from 1963 to 1987, when she retired. While in office, Thomson witnessed the continuing presence of gender discrimination in the Equality State, and became a fierce advocate for equal rights. She died in Cheyenne June 11, 2013. She was 96.

Verda James, a schoolteacher, deputy director of public instruction for the state of Wyoming, assistant superintendent of the Natrona County schools, and later a faculty member at Casper College, was first elected to the Wyoming House in 1954. She served eight terms. During the last term, 1969-1970, she was elected House speaker, the first woman to serve in that position for a full term.

When Wyoming became the 23rd state to ratify the amendment, on January 26, 1973, supporters decorated Esther Hobart Morris’s statue at the Wyoming Capitol with flowers. The amendment has yet to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

Cheyenne schoolteacher Harriett Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd, Wyoming’s first black woman legislator, served in the Wyoming House and Senate from 1981-92. She concentrated on social justice issues, and nine times sponsored a bill to make Martin Luther King day a state holiday before it was finally adopted in 1990.

Democrat Kathy Karpan traces her love of politics to her youth in working-class Rock Springs, Wyo. She served as Wyoming secretary of state from 1987 through 1994, when she ran unsuccessfully for governor. During the Clinton administration, she directed the Office of Mining and Reclamation Enforcement, and now practices law in Cheyenne.

Not only was Wyoming Territory the first government in the world to pass a law allowing women unrestricted voting rights—the territory and state can claim a number of other firsts as well. See the list for dozens more firsts for Wyoming women.

Historic Sites for Wyoming Women’s Rights