Today in Lesser-Known Ladyhistory: In 1869, Wyoming Was the First State to Give Women the Right to Vote

This year’s midterm election season was the 95th year in which women were allowed to vote federally, but Wyoming got there 50 years before the 19th Amendment was passed.
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December 10, 2014
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Feminist political pop quiz: When were women first allowed to vote in the United States? June 4, 1919? August 18, 1920? November 2, 1920?* All good answers; none of them is incorrect.

A more correct answer lies in a lesser-celebrated suffrage anniversary: December 10, 1869. It’s the first time any established bit of U.S. government allowed** women to vote. And that established bit of U.S. government? Wyoming Territory.

There are various theories regarding why a suffrage initiative prevailed in Wyoming 60 years ahead of federal legislation. In the 1860s, Wyoming had a population of about 7,000 non-Native Americans.*** About 6/7 of those people were men. One theory suggests that a handful of men were legitimately convinced that the right to vote was fundamental to citizenship and should be afforded to both men and women. Credit usually goes to their wives for putting this outlandish idea in their heads.

The theory continues by explaining that a slightly larger handful saw suffrage in strategic terms — they thought allowing women to vote might increase/strengthen Wyoming’s conservative voting bloc — and it seems that the largest handful was comprised of men who hoped offering an exclusive first right to vote would lure more marriageable women westward. (Though one wonders if these men gave any thought to the idea that the particular kinds women who would be lured away from all of the modern conveniences of their age and risk all of the hazards of traveling west — in the name of enhanced citizenship rights — would be the same kinds of women in a hurry to get married once they arrived.)

There’s also a more general theory that the whole thing was some sort of publicity stunt meant to draw more people and national attention to Wyoming Territory.

However noble or not their reasons, Wyoming legislators passed a bill allowing women to vote; on December 10, 1869, Governor John A. Campbell signed An Act to Grant the Women of Wyoming Territory the Right of Suffrage and to Hold Office into law. The language of that law provided:

That every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this territory, may, at every election to be holden under the laws thereof, cast her vote. And her rights to the elective franchise and to hold office shall be the same under the election laws of the territory, as those of electors.

Eliza A. Swain of Laramie cast Wyoming's first legal ballot in 1870. And even though no one knows for sure why the Wyoming Territorial Legislature established women’s right to vote, once they had it, neither Wyoming’s women or men were giving it up.

A couple decades later, in 1890, Wyoming was ready to join the Union, but not at the expense of women’s suffrage. The federal government hadn’t yet recognized women’s right to vote (and wouldn’t for another 40 years) but Wyoming was not giving it up. The federal government threatened to withhold statehood, but Wyoming’s legislators sent a telegram calling their bluff, saying that Wyoming would remain out of the Union “100 years” rather than sacrifice women’s right to vote. With no compromise on suffrage, President Benjamin Harrison signed Wyoming into the Union as the 44th state.

Its new official state nickname summed up the interaction appropriately: “Equality State.”**** Wyoming went on to have a few more firsts for women including: first to serve on juries, first bailiff, first justice of the peace, first governor.

As a publicity stunt, both the right to vote and the very public effort to not cede it disappointed Wyomingites. All sides of the discussion were initially drawn out by curiosity.

Prominent suffragette Susan B. Anthony called for a mass migration. She talked Elizabeth Cady Stanton into a field trip to check out the Equality State in person. Various news outlets ventured out waiting for the whole thing to blow up in a juicy-headline-generating sort of way. After milling about for a while to find not much happening other than life carrying on as usual, reporters and attention drifted back east. With all that lack of predicted civic and social upheaval, another 16 states and territories went ahead and codified women’s right to vote prior to passage of the 19th Amendment.

Did that early start have a long-term impact on voting participation in Wyoming? Does a state excited about voting for all maintain that level of enthusiasm 100-plus years later?

Let’s take a look at the last “big” election, the 2012 presidential election. In 2012, 240,438 of its 433,221 (56 percent) voting-age residents were registered to vote prior to the general election. On November 6, Wyoming recorded 250,701 votes for President. How did Wyoming record more votes than registered voters? An additional 10,263 citizens registered on the day of the general election (allowed by Wyoming state statute) so those folks bumped the turnout of voting-age voters up to 57.9 percent.

Well, it didn’t make the “Top 6” states (all of which had a turnout rate of more than 60 percent). The U.S. Census stats on resident population of voting age and percent casting votes show Wyoming voters placing pretty much in the middle of the pack when it comes to voting in the last decade. Nationwide, in every election since 1986, women have voted at a higher percentage than men.

Wyoming also places in the uneventful middle when it comes to voting legislation. On the one hand, as of the 2014 election, they don’t have any recent or pending legislation that would restrict or place more limits on voting (regulations like: voter ID laws, limiting where/how voters can register or making it more difficult to register to vote, reducing early voting, more expansive voter purging). But they also don’t have anything in the pipeline that would decrease regulation or make it easier to vote (programs like online registration, improving access for disabled voters, establishing criminal penalties for organizations to knowingly distribute false information about how/where/when to vote, expanding absentee ballot programs, etc.). They already have same-day voter registration, which helps increase voter participation. And you can get an absentee ballot by phone if you can’t go in person.

So Wyoming doesn’t seem to be any more fired up about voting than anywhere else. But they don’t seem to be less interested either.

Once upon a time, anti-suffragists predicted that all manners of chaos would be the inevitable result of women voting. When the women of Wyoming were the first to vote, the media scurried out to catch a glimpse of the world falling in on itself. Instead, they found a small community of people just going about their regular, un-chaotic lives. Today, Wyoming, as our 49th least-populated state, is a still a relatively small community of people living relatively regular lives. One thing has changed. They now have a population that’s 49 percent women rather than 14.2 percent.

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Notes:

* The U.S. Senate passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on June 4, 1919 (it had already passed the House). In order for the Amendment to become an official part of the Constitution, 36 states needed to vote to ratify it. Tennessee was 36 on August 18,1920 (Incidentally, Mississippi didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984). November 2, 1920 was the first general presidential election in which women were legally allowed to vote, federally.

** Throughout this piece, I struggled for an adequate verb when discussing the right to vote. I view the right to vote as a fundamental human right in any democratic society. Therefore it’s hard for me to use phrases like granted or allowed because the right was already there, it’s closer to recognizing or codifying into law. For the same reason, I steered clear of words like earn since no one citizen needs to earn a right to vote; voting and citizenship should be inextricable ideas.

*** I have made a purposeful effort to not refer to these people as “settlers,” “pioneers,” or “frontierspeople,” all of which privilege an historical narrative that under-records the parallel history of people already living in Wyoming, including (not limited to): Crow, Cheyenne, Ute, Arapaho, Lakota, Bannock, and Shoshone tribes. I’ve used the word non-Native American because not all of the Westward migrants were White; if you have better idea, please let me know in the comments.

**** Appropriately, if the moniker "Equality State" is limited to recognizing the importance of gender equality in voting. In many ways, equality is still a goal rather than a reality in Wyoming — and every other state in the U.S.

***** The 14.2 percent refers to the ~1,000/7,000 non-Native American women recorded in the population counts of Wyoming Territory. If Native American women had been counted, the gender balance likely would not have been so skewed.