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Gender in The West

Wyoming Makes History . . . and a Hero

In 1869, Wyoming became the first federal territory to grant women the right to vote. In 1890, when Wyoming entered the Union as the forty-fourth state, it wrote this provision into its state constitution, thus becoming the first state extending the franchise to women. In both 1869 and 1890, Wyoming's actions were quickly echoed by others. The Utah Territory followed Wyoming's example the following year, and the Washington Territory enfranchised women in 1883. In the decade following Wyoming's admission to the Union as the "equality state," three other western states – Colorado, Idaho, and Utah – extended the vote to women. By the time the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, thirteen states and territories had followed the lead set by Wyoming and granted full voting rights to women.

In 1960, the Wyoming State Historical Society honored Esther Morris for her prominent role in securing the state's historic legislation by placing a statue of the suffragist in front of the capitol. According to Grace Hebard, the historian most responsible for bringing attention to Morris, in the weeks preceding the territory's first legislative election in 1869, Morris galvanized the suffragist community and confronted the leading candidates with a demonstration of their determination at a tea party in her South Pass City home. Moved by Morris's arguments, and the size of her support, the candidates promised to introduce a measure extending the franchise to women. After Democratic candidate William Bright won the legislative seat, he prudently bent to the will of Morris and her allies by proposing the bill that became law on 10 December 1869.

The statue honoring Morris reveals a powerful figure. Born in 1814, the eighth of eleven children, and orphaned at age 11, Morris grew into a gritty and determined woman. Six feet tall and 180 lbs., her physical presence matched her spirit. County officials acknowledged this when they named her Justice of the Peace for South Pass City shortly after the passage of the 1869 act making women eligible for public office. Her term was only ten months, but as the first woman to fill a judicial role in the nation, Morris broke through a huge barrier. Her effective service answered critics and opened the door for other women.

But most historians now agree that Morris played little if any role in proposing or securing passage of the Wyoming act extending the vote to women. In fact, the famous tea party had been called into serious question even before the state historical society resolved to commemorate Morris's part in advancing women's rights. But despite this fact, the society memorialized her somewhat dubious contributions in bronze. In deciding to do so, the historical society raised some interesting questions about our understanding of history and our need for heroes.

William Bright

Historians now agree that William Bright, a South Pass miner and saloon keeper, was far more instrumental in securing territorial approval for women's suffrage. Elected to the first territorial legislature in 1869, he proposed the historic measure, granting women 21 and over the right to vote and hold office, just one month after the session convened. What exactly motivated Bright is hard to say. His wife, Julia, was a suffragist; no doubt she exerted some influence over his views. But, apparently, his receptivity to her ideas was shaped by factors less philosophically progressive. As a Democrat, he vehemently opposed the Fifteenth Amendment recently approved by the Republican Congress and, by the fall of 1869, ratified by nineteen states. Bright believed that African Americans were intellectually inferior and women, like his wife, should be allowed to vote before the freedmen. Bright also may have been politically ambitious. One historian suggested that he entered the crowded saloon business just to build connections in preparation for his first political campaign. At the first legislative session, he was elected its president. But he temporarily relinquished this position in order to propose the vote-extending legislation himself. Perhaps Bright had one eye on the next election and the other on his wife when he introduced the landmark legislation in November 1869.

Why Wyoming Gave Women the Vote

Unraveling the reasons other legislators supported the bill is equally complex. Some were no doubt philosophically committed to expanding women's rights. During the same legislative session, laws were passed increasing women's property rights and guaranteeing equal pay for women and men teachers. But others were probably moved by more practical, and philosophically neutral, considerations. There were just over 1000 women in Wyoming in 1869; they represented only 1/6 of the state. How great a threat to male political power could such a tiny minority pose? As Harpers Weekly observed, enfranchising women in Wyoming was about as significant as granting "angels or Martians" the right to vote in eastern states.38

Other Democratic legislators may have been intent on embarrassing the Republican governor. They erroneously expected Governor John Campbell to veto the measure, thereby contrasting the Republican Party's indifference to female suffrage with its support for African-American voting rights.

Still others probably shared Bright's feelings about African-American suffrage – if blacks were allowed to vote then women should be allowed to vote as well. Even more cynically, some may have supported voting rights for white women in order to offset any political power wielded by black men.

Perhaps most were moved by a combination of economic and civic concerns. The Union Pacific Railroad had recently completed its work in Wyoming, and the departure of the company and its free-spending construction crews had a noticeable impact on the territory's economy. In addition, returns from many of the gold mines were falling off, presaging even more serious long-term economic problems. Forward looking members of the legislature believed that this historic legislation would encourage migration to their territory, thereby revitalizing its economy. But they needed to act soon. Other western states seemed poised to take action; Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa had all recently debated women's suffrage. If Wyoming did not pass a measure in this first legislative session, another state or territory might seize the headlines, and the promotional value of the history-making law would be lost.

What ultimately emerges is a somewhat clouded explanation for the passage of this historic legislation. More disappointing for some, is the fact that this crucial moment in American history – and the history of American women – was not prefaced by any noteworthy mobilization or lobbying by Wyoming women. Two suffragists from outside Wyoming did speak in Cheyenne during the fall of 1869. But there was no grassroots organization or movement, and there were no parades or demonstrations. Even the legislative debates were comparatively undramatic. Whereas similar proposals in eastern cities had prompted fierce debate and frenzied press commentary, Wyoming made history with relatively little fanfare.

Enter Esther Morris

The Morris legend began in 1922, when Herman Nickerson, one of William Bright's Republican opponents for office in 1869, published a letter in response to a recent newspaper article crediting Democrats with winning women the right to vote in 1869. Not true, wrote Nickerson. The "credit and honor" belonged to Esther Morris who hosted "a tea party" prior to the election, during which she secured a "public pledge" that the election winner would pursue women's suffrage.39 In fact, Nickerson continued, it was Democrats that tried to repeal the measure in 1871, and a Republican governor that vetoed their attempt.

Nickerson's partisan motivations were transparent, but nevertheless, the story of the history-changing "tea party" was repeated in historian Grace Hebard's 1920 account of the origins of women's suffrage in Wyoming. And soon after, Hebard and Nickerson sealed this version of events by placing a small monument at Morris's old cabin site, identifying her as "the author of female suffrage in Wyoming."

But from the start, many were troubled by this account. During the 50 years between 1869 and 1919, not a single person had ever offered this version of events – not Bright, not another of the 40 persons Nickerson claimed to be in attendance at the tea party, and not Morris herself. In fact, Morris had never claimed that she played a pivotal a role in the events of 1869. In an 1871 letter to the Woman Suffrage Association Convention she stated that "so far as woman suffrage has progressed in this territory we are entirely indebted to men."40

Perhaps Morris was just being modest. Her son, on the other hand, had no reason to be restrained on his mother's behalf, yet in a letter written shortly after the 1869 legislative session, he gave full credit to Bright. Shortly after Bright returned to South Pass, wrote Robert, he and his mother, "as the only open advocates here of Woman's Suffrage," paid him a visit in order to congratulate and thank him for his achievement. According to Robert, Bright was relieved to find at least two locals who supported his actions, and made a little speech explaining his motivations. "I have never thought much about it, nor have I been converted by a woman's lecture or a newspaper. . . . I knew that it was a new issue, and a live one, and with a strong feeling that it was just, I determined to use all influence in my power to have the bill passed."41

Robert Morris's recitation of Bright's motivations brings us back to the philosophically cloudy combination of principle and opportunism. His intuitive sense of justice is unapologetically mixed with his political instinct that the issue was a "live one." Robert's subsequent commentary reveals that his own commitment to women's suffrage was also combined with certain civic ambitions. Now that Wyoming was "the first to lead the way," women will be encouraged to come to the territory. Robert even suggests that Horace Greeley should amend his famous advice to young men; young women also should be urged to move to "this higher plain of human rights."42

In other words, it is hard to escape the fact that Wyoming's trend-setting and historic extension of the vote to women was rooted in a murky combination of philosophical, practical, personal, and even disreputable factors. Perhaps this is why Esther Morris became so important; perhaps the philosophically cloudy, unheroic version of events simply does not square with our sense of how history should be made.

But that is the way history is made. Progress does not always unfold in logical ways; our highest ideals are not always advanced by the noble and pure of heart. History does not always follow a straight path, nor is it only made by heroes and heroines.

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