As I watch our country exercise its most cherished privilege – the right to vote – I am reminded of some of the Wyoming leaders who advanced and defended that simple act on behalf of the population that carries two X chromosomes.
First, a quick review of some relevant Wyoming milestones. The Wyoming Territory was formed in 1869. The same year it became a territory Wyoming also granted the country’s first female suffrage giving women the right to vote, a right women exercised in the election the following year. That act is truly remarkable, given that the 19th Amendment granting the women the vote nationally didn’t happen until 1920, half a century later.
Suffrage wasn’t the only unprecedented thing that advanced women’s lives in that pivotal year of 1869. Legislators also passed a resolution allowing women to sit inside the same government building where lawmakers sat. They passed a bill guaranteeing married women property rights. And female schoolteachers were guaranteed the same pay as male teachers.
The motivation for these unusually women-friendly advancements were not necessarily because legislators had great confidence in women’s judgment. In reality, it was classic sausage-making; women’s suffrage was in part a convoluted maneuver to suppress black voters. Suffrage faced intense challenges in years to come, and the privilege was vociferously defended. Still, the decisions gave women the powerful voice that they have continued to use loudly and proudly throughout Wyoming’s history.
Among those women was Nellie Taylor Ross, who became the country’s first elected female governor when she sworn into office in 1925 after the death the previous year of her husband, Wyoming governor William Bradford Ross, who died in office of appendicitis. Nellie Ross continued to serve the country as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and director of the DNC Women’s Division. In 1933, she became the first female director of the U.S. Mint, a position she held until she retired in 1953. (Other women were governors before Nellie Ross, but they served for short periods under extenuating circumstances.)
Another remarkable woman was Louisa Swain, who cast the first equal suffrage vote in 1870. Esther Morris was appointed justice of the peace in 1870. That same year, women like Amalia Post began to serve on juries. Then there was Estelle Reel Meyer, who became one of the first women elected to a state office when she became the state superintendent of public instruction for Wyoming. Mary Bellamy of Laramie became the first woman elected to the Wyoming legislature in 1910.
Here in Cody, our town founder Buffalo Bill was a supporter of women’s suffrage long before most other men. He once said that his support stemmed from his support from his beloved mother, who died when he was only 18, setting off a self-destructive period in his life that finally ended when he joined the Union Army. He employed and paid fairly women in the Wild West Show troupe, and women played important roles in the establishment and growth of the town of Cody.
Strong Wyoming women have continued to remove obstacles and pave the way for women and men alike throughout our state’s history. If you want yet another reason I am proud to be a Wyoming woman, “That’s WY.”
Until next time, I’ve loving life and appreciating my foremothers here in Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country.