The Origin of Women’s Rights in the Equality State – My Theory

                Last week, Dana filled you in on her experiences as a liberal woman in the “Equality State.” So, I thought perhaps I might add to her experience by explaining the importance of women’s rights in our state history. If you are a historian in the state of Wyoming, you cannot escape the issue. In fact, it is perhaps the most important distinction between us and the rest of the American West. No, we are not the “Cowboy State,” as some maintain….we are the “Equality State.” So, without further ado, let’s look at the story behind the nickname.


                It’s May 7, 1869, and thirty-three year old John Campbell, a bachelor and former officer in the Union army arrives in Cheyenne to take up his post as governor of the new territory of Wyoming. He’s joined by Edward M. Lee, another bachelor who has been appointed by President Grant to serve as territorial secretary. Since both men are single, there’s no worry about them being preoccupied with concerns about their wives and potential families. They can do the hard, rugged work of bringing civilization to the wild frontier.

                None of them would have thought at the time that their tenures would be marked by one of the greatest advancement in women’s rights in American history.

                At this point, I should point out that the authority on this subject used to be T. A. Larson, who literally wrote the book on Wyoming History. If you read Larson, you might think the same of the other members of the territorial government.

                At the time that the first session of the legislature met in Cheyenne in September 1869, the ratio of men-to-women in Wyoming was somewhere around 6 to 1! And with towns like Laramie, Rawlins, and Rock Springs literally being defined as “hell on wheels” towns, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to expect the legislators to resemble the ruckus nature of their constituents.

                To be fair, the legislature WAS all men, all white, and all Democrat.

                But, beyond that, the legislature did something unexpected during its first session. In early December it passed a bill proposed by William Bright of South Pass City granting women the right to vote and hold office! Governor Campbell signed the bill on December 6, giving Wyoming bragging rights as the first place ANYWHERE in the United States to grant such a privilege, and earning us the nickname “the Equality State.”


               Ever since then, historians have debated exactly WHY it happened.

T. A. Larson believed he had the answer.

1.)  Legislators wanted to bring women to the territory! Families bring civilization, the theory goes, and women are the glue that holds the family together. Ergo, we need women to have an incentive to come to this rugged landscape and make a go at it!

If this was the reason why, it didn’t work out like they wanted. Women did not flock to Wyoming in droves after the passage of the suffrage bill.

2.) Legislators were influenced by famous women’s suffragettes. Anna Dickinson gave a speech in Cheyenne on September 24, and Redelia Bates spoke in the same town on November 5—just a week before Bright introduced the suffrage bill.

Maybe this was partially true. Both women spoke in the hall where the House of Representatives met, and during a time when the legislators might possibly have attended.

                3.) It was all a big joke!

Yep! Larson suggested that it was a farce. The day that Bright introduced the bill, the men in the legislature were proposing ridiculous amendments to suggest that government wastes the people’s time and money. Some believed that the suffrage bill was proposed in this vein, but that it accidentally passed! To be fair, William Bright denied that he meant the bill as a joke. And Governor Campbell, who signed it, certainly didn’t see it that way!


                Now, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with these proposed theories. Larson had evidence to support each of them. But he left one possible reason out, and I think it’s a glaring omission!

                I think that the women’s suffrage bill was politically motivated.

                When Wyomingites went to the polls in September 1869, they chose an all Democratic legislature. While we want to give the men who helped make this monumental occasion the benefit of the doubt, their political affiliation really cannot be ignored.

                In January 1865, the House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified that December). One year later, it passed the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in July 1868). These acts ended slavery, and then granted citizenship to the four million former slaves. They also made the Republican Party the party of freedom and equality!

                The Democratic Party, in contrast, had become known nationally as the party of traitors! Every Senator and Congressman who had left the congress when the South seceded had been a Democrat, and every time a Democrat ran for national office during Reconstruction he was trounced by Republicans who claimed their party was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of boys in the late war.

                But then the Republicans “fumbled the ball.” In February 1869 Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which was meant to give all citizens the federally-protected right to vote. However, the final version of this act only granted the right to men. Women were excluded for any number of reasons. The feeling of betrayal was palpable among female advocates of equality. Until then, they had been united with men who advocated equality, regardless of race or sex. Now, they broke away from their former male colleagues and created a uniquely women’s suffrage movement.

                I believe, then, that Democrats in the Wyoming Territorial Legislature—which was seated, I might add, only months after the betrayal of women in the fifteenth amendment–saw an opportunity! They could get on the “equality” bandwagon by taking up this issue. If enough new territories, which would eventually become states, did likewise, then Democrats would earn the thanks and respect of an entirely new electorate that might get them back into power in Washington.

                After all that trouble, the end of the story might be the most humorous part! Starting the next year, 1870, women began serving on juries and holding public office. Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass City became the first woman in all of the United States to hold an elected office—Justice of the Peace. These female jurists, and this female justice, began convicting men in these rough-and-tumble “hell on wheels” towns to the harshest sentences possible under the law. In essence, women were literally civilizing the wild frontier!

                The icing on the cake, though, was the elections in September 1870. Women went to the polls for the first time….and voted Republican!

                For those Democratic men in the legislature, this was too much! When the legislature met again in late 1871, it nearly ended this great experiment in democracy by repealing the women’s suffrage bill.

               And this is where Governor Campbell became the unexpected savior of Women’s Rights. Even though his party (Republican) had essentially betrayed women with the Fifteenth Amendment, he personally chose not to penalize them for voting for his party (as the Democrats were trying to do), and vetoed the Democrat’s repeal bill. The Democrats failed to override Campbell’s veto, and women’s suffrage was here to stay.


                Women’s rights became a central part of Wyoming’s existence in the American Union. We led the way, and other western states followed. In fact, prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, the only state east of the Rocky Mountains to grant suffrage to women was Kansas! The West had made its mark on American History, and Wyoming had led the way.

                To be fair, the measure did not bring more women to Wyoming, and the rough-and-tumble nature of some parts of Wyoming did not settle down right away (sometime, I’ll relate the story of the Johnson County War and the notorious acts of the vigilante Tom Horn). But women would eventually have a role to play in society.

                It only remains for today’s Wyoming women to assert the freedoms and privileges first given to them over one-hundred-and-fifty years ago.

— m.a.n.

Published by

Drs. Dana Pertermann & Mark Neels

Friends, colleagues, and sparing partners, Drs. Dana L. Pertermann and Mark A. Neels collaborate on research in military history, politics, and culture. They are currently both college professors in Wyoming. They blog weekly about the past, the present, and the future of the U.S. and the world.

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