While female suffragists worked endlessly on the east coast for the right to vote, women on the other side of the country achieved that right. The relationship between the Wyoming Territory and women’s suffrage is an interesting one. At the time the territory had a ratio of six men to one woman and, in 1869, women were allowed to vote in a general election. Thus, the Wyoming Territory was the first territory or state to grant women the right to vote. It was not just the right to vote that Wyoming women gained, but also the right to hold public office.
In 1869, Wyoming’s twenty-member territorial legislature became the first government to enact a bill granting female suffrage. Sponsored by William Bright, the bill stated: “That every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this Territory, may at every election to be holden under the law thereof, cast her vote.” On December 10th of that year, Wyoming’s territorial Governor John Allen Campbell signed that bill into law. [Two years later the state’s democrats tried to repeal the bill but Governor Campbell vetoed it.] While women kept vigils outside of Campbell’s office (before he signed the bill), there were no other organized suffrage campaign or parade or debate or even public display.
The next year saw many historic moments. Wyoming women were put onto juries and Mary Atkinson became the first female court bailiff in Laramie. On February 17, Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass City served as the first female justice of the peace. Morris was also known as the “Mother of Women Suffrage in Wyoming.”
On September 6, 1870, Louisa Ann Swain of Laramie was the first woman in the United States to vote in a general election. At the age of 69, she cast her vote at a downtown polling place after she stumbled upon it while running errands. A Laramie newspaper described Louisa as “a gentle white-haired housewife, Quakerish in appearance.” In 1894, Estelle Reel was elected as the Superintendent of Public Instruction – one of the first women in the country elected into a state office.
The Wyoming Territory entered the Union on July 10, 1890. It was the 44th state and the first state since New Jersey to include women’s suffrage in its state constitution. Wyoming saw one of its most historic feats in 1924 when Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected governor of the state. While Texas also elected a female governor that same day, Ross took office twenty days before Texas’ governor, making her the country’s first woman governor. Ross remains the only woman to serve as governor of Wyoming. In 1926, she ran for re-election but lost by a slim margin. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Ross as the first female director of the U.S. Mint in 1933. She held that position for five full terms and retired in 1953.
Through the advancement of women’s rights, Wyoming’s nickname became the “Equality State” with the official state motto being “Equal Rights.”
Elizabeth Frost-Knappman & Kathryn Cullen-DuPont, “Eyewitness History Series: Women’s Suffrage in America,” New York: Infobase Publishing, 2005.
“Wyoming: The Equality State,” Women of the West Museum.
State of Wyoming