Verda James, First Full-term Woman Speaker of Wyoming’s House of Representatives
Verda James was the first woman to serve a full term as speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, serving in that capacity during the 1969-1970 session.
She was born in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 27, 1901, to William Henry and Sara (Nice) James. William Henry James was a railroad official. The family moved to Iowa when she was two years old. She graduated from high school in Boone, Iowa, and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa. She became a teacher, working first in Algona, Iowa, and later in Casper, Wyo., where she taught English at Natrona County High School.
She lived briefly in Minnesota and South Dakota and attended the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Denver.
In 1939, she began working for the Wyoming Department of Education, eventually becoming director of the Special Education Division. She also served as the state’s deputy director of public instruction.
In the early 1950s, she was instrumental in creating remedial reading programs, and in 1955, she joined the Casper College faculty, teaching English and education. In 1958, she became assistant superintendent for elementary education for Natrona County School District 1.
She belonged to numerous professional and community organizations and strongly believed that women, no matter their background or education, could and should play an active role in their communities. One of her proudest accomplishments was her role in the Wyoming Department of Education’s establishment of the state School for the Deaf in Casper.
Verda served eight terms, from 1954 to 1970, in the Wyoming House of Representatives. She chaired the House Education Committee for three terms and was the only Republican woman in the House during most of that time. Wyoming Governor Clifford Hansen appointed her to the Governor’s Committee on Education and the Status of Women. Verda once summed up her career as an educator and legislator, saying, “If I can do something to help the children, I will have fulfilled my job.”
Verda James Elementary School in Casper, built in 1978, was named to honor her for her outstanding accomplishments.
She died in Casper on Oct. 15, 1991.
James was not the first woman ever to hold the position of House speaker in Wyoming, however. That honor belongs to Edness Kimball Wilkins. Wilkins, a Democrat, was serving as majority leader in the House when Speaker Walter Phelan of Cheyenne died in office. After Phelan’s death, Wilkins’ fellow House Democrats promoted her to speaker in May 1966. But she ran successfully for the state Senate the following fall, and so never actually served as speaker during a session of the legislature. The Wyoming Legislature at that time met only on odd-numbered years.
- Cardoso, Lawrence A. “James, Verda I,” in American Legislative Leaders in the American West, 1911-1914, Nancy Weatherly Sharp and James Roger Sharp, eds. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997, 148-149. Accessed March 26, 2014 at http://books.google.com/books?id=uHqVYTkA08YC&pg=PA148&lpg=PA148&dq=Verda+James+American+Legislative+Leaders+in+the+West&source=bl&ots=Bm1whTzyIl&sig=iXrOCpIrn400ZOlLFUYgrf02hkI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=JB8zU5KyENT2qwH1hYDIAQ&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=
- Cardoso, Lawrence A. “Wilkins, Edness K.,” in American Legislative Leaders in the American West, 1911-1914, Nancy Weatherly Sharp and James Roger Sharp, eds. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997, 268. Accessed March 26, 2014 at http://books.google.com/books?id=uHqVYTkA08YC&pg=PA268&lpg=PA268&dq=Edness+Kimball+Wilkins+American+Legislative+Leaders+in+the+West&source=bl&ots=Bm1whTzDKk&sig=BGmXhBzabxTsNOyIcijZ5ZNYtPM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=KyEzU8zuGcnYqgHmt4GQBw&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=
- Casper Star-Tribune, 17 October 1991.
- “Legislator Information: Edness Kimball Wilkins.” State of Wyoming Legislature. Accessed March 26, 2014 at http://legisweb.state.wy.us/LegislatorSummary/LegDetail.aspx?Source=H&LegID=173
- Trenholm, Virginia Cole, ed. Wyoming Blue Book. Cheyenne: Wyoming State Archives, 1974, 1990, vol. III, 66, 69, 71, 74, 76, 79, 82, 84, 93.
- The photo of Verda James is from the College Relations Collection, Casper College Western History Center, used with thanks.