On September 6, 1870 in the town of Laramie in territory of Wyoming, 70-year-old mild-mannered Louisa Gardner Swain officially cast a vote in a democratic Presidential election becoming the first woman in the world to do so. This was a full 23 years before the country of New Zealand granted the first national woman’s suffrage. A total of 93 women across the territory voted that day earning Wyoming the nickname of the “Equality State.”
It would be wonderful to say that it happened because the settlers decided it was the fair thing to do but, in the end, it was politics and self-preservation. In December of 1869, very late in the legislative session, William Bright introduced a bill to grant women the right to vote in the territory of Wyoming. Although there are no records of the actual debate and crafting of the law, personal recollections after the fact and newspaper articles have given historical insights about the factors giving the women of Wyoming Territory full voting rights.
*DISCLAIMER: The political parties of the late 1800s have the same titles as today’s major parties of Republican and Democrat but ideologies have evolved greatly over the decades. Lincoln’s Republican Party favored larger government including supporting federal rights over state rights, was against free trade, and pro income tax. It was considered the more liberal of the two parties at the time. Party names should not be taken out of historical context and used in current political points which is why historical versions will have quotations around the name.
While the “Republicans” (1860s version) who controlled both the Territorial and Federal Congress were guaranteeing the right to vote for both newly-freed slaves and no discrimination based on racial identity, women’s rights were being put to the side. The “Democrats” (1860s version) had not only wanted a political point to use against them, they also had some issues with the rights of women—notably white women—being less than non-white men. The Wyoming “Democrats” suddenly becoming pro-suffrage had strong racist undertones.
The main incentive why Wyoming started becoming more woman friendly was that they had a ratio of six adult men to every adult woman and very few children. (Native Americans were not included in these statistics.) Wyoming Territory needed good national publicity and feminine appeal. The 1869 territorial legislature passed some very progressive laws to encourage women to stay, have families, and help grow the population.
Some of the first laws allowed women to sit in on legislative sessions. Soon laws passed to allow them to hold office and serve on juries. Wyoming had the first female judge (justice of the peace Judge Esther Hobart Morris) and the first coed jury of six women and ten men including creating a necessary appointment of the first female bailiff (Martha Symons Boles) to supervise the female jurors. Laws were passed for women to be able to own and inherit property, have guardianship of their minor children, and even offered equal pay for teachers regardless of gender.
The “Democrats” hoped not only to garner loyalty of women voters by championing suffrage in the territory but also were trying to embarrass the “Republican” governor, John Campbell, if he dared to veto it. It is quite likely that many in their own party were hoping it would be vetoed and not come to pass because woman’s suffrage was still an extremist political idea at the time. One of the first versions of the bill which absolutely would have killed the legislation tried to include “all colored women and squaws.”
Ironically, since the 93 women chose to vote their own political values in the 1870 election instead of straight party loyalty to the “Democrats,” a bill was immediately introduced to repeal women’s right to vote and in 1871, Governor John Campbell vetoed the attempted repeal thus the women of Wyoming got and retained full suffrage a full 50 years before the 19th amendment.
This week’s song pick
“Let the River Run” by Carly Simon arranged and sung by the Gordano Gorgeous & Gurt Lush Choir https://youtu.be/z8Lb1O8n0A0
Episode 23 Sources:
Newspaper clipping photo: Albany County Historical Society, Wyoming
Statue is located in Laramie, Wyoming