The history is right there in Wyoming’s official nickname: the Equality State.
In 1889, delegates to Wyoming’s constitutional convention voted to do something that had never been done before: permanently guarantee women the right to vote in a constitution, without any preconditions. Article No. VI, Section 1, states plainly: “The rights of citizens of the State of Wyoming to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of the State shall equally enjoy all civil, political, and religious rights and privileges. ”
That act put Wyoming at the vanguard of the suffrage movement 30 years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the vote at the federal level. How did a fledgling state on America’s wild, wild western frontier get there first? It’s a story that’s recounted in the New-York Historical exhibition Colonists, Citizens, Constitutions: Creating the America Republic (on view through May 31). Focusing on the United States’ long tradition of civic and constitutional engagement, the exhibition showcases, among many other documents from the collection of philanthropist Dorothy Tapper Goldman, an original copy of that 1889 Wyoming constitution.
The history of women’s suffrage in the U.S. is a complex one that unfolded over two centuries with multiple steps back to accompany almost every step forward. (It’s a story that’s recounted in even more detail in the immersive New-York Historical exhibition Women March on the 4th floor in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery.) The state of New Jersey, for instance, allowed women and free African Americans who owned property to vote starting in 1790, before snatching the right away in 1807 and limiting suffrage to only tax-paying white men.
What Wyoming offered was an advance that would not be broken. It began all the way back in 1868, when it became a federal territory and granted women the vote a year later. But why, exactly? A traditional crossroads of Native American tribes, including Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux, and Shoshone, the territory only had 9,000 nonindigenous settlers in 1869. Most of them lived near the major trading and transportation outpost of Ft. Laramie and worked in industries like mining and the railroad. “Wyoming’s six-to-one male-to-female ratio may have led legislators to seek ways to attract more women to the territory,” scholar James Hrdlicka writes in the catalog for Colonists, Citizens, Constitutions. “Perhaps more important, men from the territory’s permanently settled families wanted to counterbalance the votes of transient laborers, single men not much interested in Wyoming’s long-term development or beholden to local elites.”
The territorial statute was an important first that led to others: For the first time ever in the United States, women served on a jury. In 1870 in Laramie, Louisa Swain became the first woman to vote in a general election. Also in 1870, 55-year-old Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass City was appointed the country’s first female justice of the peace and dubbed the “terror of all rogues” by a newspaper of the day. (She herself was more modest, later saying of her tenure, “I feel that my work has been satisfactory.”) A statue of Morris now stands outside the Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne and a second is one of the state’s two entries in the National Statuary Hall at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Morris finally earned a New York Times obituary only two years ago, as part of the newspaper’s Overlooked series.
The suffrage law was in effect for two decades until Wyoming applied for statehood. Hrdlicka recounts a lively constitutional convention in Cheyenne in September 1889 where the (male) delegates debated women’s suffrage, with one saying that the territorial law had been “meant more as a joke than anything.” A Laramie newspaper at the time raised fears that the U.S. Congress wouldn’t take kindly to an upstart new state offering a right that the previous states did not. But other delegates defended women’s suffrage, with one noting that the right had existed for 20 years in the territory and the sky had not, in fact, fallen: “There has been no disturbance of the domestic relations, there has been no diminution of the dignity which characterizes the exercise of the elective franchise; there has been on the contrary an improvement of the social order, better laws, better officials, a higher and better civilization. We stand today proud, proud of this great experiment.”
In the end, women’s suffrage was included in the constitution, and Wyoming was admitted as the 44th state in 1890 (but not, it should be noted, without some grumbling in Congress). As Hrdlicka writes, it was a small victory in terms of population at the time: a little over 60,000 out of a total U.S. population of about 63 million. But Wyoming offered “an example for activists looking to reassure skeptical Americans that they had no reason to dread female participation in the political process.” In the years before the 19th Amendment in 1920, several more western states would follow Wyoming’s example, including Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and California, among others. The great experiment was a success—and was leading to greater ones down the long road to full women’s suffrage.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor