The years 2009 and 2010 mark the 140th anniversary of woman suffrage in the United States. Wyoming passed the first woman suffrage law on December 10, 1869, and women voted for the first time in 1870. The word suffrage comes from the Latin word suffragium, meaning the right to vote.
Women in the United States had fought for suffrage since the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1820s. Before the Civil War, women were allowed limited voting in a few states. New Jersey allowed women to vote before their state’s constitution outlawed it in 1844.
In 1869, Congress passed the soon-to-be-ratified 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave all men the right to vote. The amendment didn’t mention women. While the federal government didn’t give women the right to vote at that time, it was still possible for individual states to pass women’s suffrage laws.
Railroads and Rights
That same year, the transcontinental railroad was completed, connecting the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific rail lines. This may seem like it has nothing to do with women being allowed to vote, but it was actually very important.
Thousands of workers had come to the American west to work on the railroad. As the population grew, Congress decided to split off a piece of land in the Dakota, Idaho, and Utah territories to create the Wyoming Territory. In May 1869, the same month that the Union Pacific Railroad was open to the public, President Ulysses S. Grant named John A. Campbell the new governor of Wyoming Territory.
The first elections were held in Wyoming Territory in September 1869. William H. Bright, President of the Council of the Wyoming Territorial legislature, introduced a woman suffrage bill in the legislature’s first session. The bill sailed through the Democratic legislature and was quickly signed by the Republican governor.
The law reads:
An Act to Grant to the Women of Wyoming Territory the Right of Suffrage, and to Hold Office
Be it enacted by the Council and House of Representatives of the Territory of Wyoming:
Sec. 1. 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.
Sec. 2. This act shall take effect and be in force from and after its passage.
Approved, December 10, 1869.
Younger states and territories like Wyoming were more willing to consider fresh ideas about who could vote. Still, people were a little surprised. Wyoming passed the first woman suffrage law in the United States, with almost no discussion or controversy.
There were several reasons why the bill was passed so quickly. Historian C. G. Coutant wrote, “One man told me that he thought it right and just to give women the vote. Another man said he thought it would be a good advertisement for the territory. Still another said that he voted to please someone else, and so on.”
Many legislators voted for the bill hoping to increase the territory’s population. Women were scarce out west, and perhaps men were acting desperately to entice them. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 said territories could apply for statehood once the population reached 60,000. “We now expect at once quite an immigration of ladies to Wyoming,” wrote The Cheyenne Leader, a local newspaper.
One politician claimed women’s suffrage started as a joke. Edward M. Lee, a secretary in the Territory in 1869, wrote, “Once, during the session, amid the greatest hilarity, and after the presentation of various funny amendments and in the full expectation of a gubernatorial veto, an act was passed Enfranchising the Women of Wyoming. The bill, however, was approved, became a law, and the youngest territory placed in the van of progress . . . How strange that a movement destined to purify the muddy pool of politics . . . should have originated in a joke . . . All honor to them, say we, to Wyoming’s first legislature!”
Even though some treated his bill as a joke, William Bright took suffrage very seriously. Mrs. Bright later said that her husband, a Southerner who fought on the Union side in the Civil War, believed that if all men could vote, then there was no reason why his own wife and mother could not vote as well.
William Bright wrote in the Denver Tribune, “I knew it was a new issue, and a live one, and with strong feeling that it was just, I determined to use all my influence.”
Some legislators voted for the bill because they believed it didn’t have a very good chance of passing. William Bright took advantage of this opinion. In 1882, Governor John W. Hoyt explained how William Bright cleverly played both sides against each other:
“He said to the Democrats: ‘We have a Republican Governor and a Democratic Assembly. Now, then, if we can carry this bill through the Assembly and the Governor vetoes it, we shall have made a point, you know; we shall have shown our liberality and lost nothing. But keep still; don’t say anything about it.’ They promised. He then went to the Republicans and told them that the Democrats were going to support his measure, and that if they did not want to lose capital they had better vote for it too. He didn’t think there would be enough of them to carry it, but the vote would be on record and thus defeat the game of the other party. And they likewise agreed to vote for it. So, when the bill came to a vote, it went right through! The members looked at each other in astonishment, for they hadn’t intended to do it, quite. Then they laughed, and said it was a good joke, but they had ‘got the Governor in a fix.’ So the bill went, in the course of time, to John A. Campbell, who was then Governor—and he promptly signed it!”
After the bill passed, the Wyoming Tribune wrote that it “is likely to be THE measure of the session, and we are glad our Legislature has taken the initiative in this movement, which is destined to become universal. Better appear to lead rather than hinder when a movement is inevitable.”
Of woman suffrage in Wyoming, American civil rights activist Susan B. Anthony said happily, “Wyoming is the first place on God’s green earth which could consistently claim to be the land of the Free!” Telegrams came in from as far away as Britain and Prussia.
Judge and Jury
The woman suffrage bill not only gave women the right to vote, but also to sit on juries and to run for political office. In February 1870, three women were commissioned as justices of the peace in Wyoming, although only one, Esther Morris, was known to have actually served as a judge. She tried more than forty cases in the territory. She lost none on appeal and was widely regarded as a good judge, but wasn’t nominated for re-election when her term ended.
The first women jurors began their service in March or April of 1870. In T. A. Larson’s A History of Wyoming, the author writes that male jurors stopped smoking and chewing tobacco once women began to serve alongside them. Men stopped gambling and drinking during their jury breaks.
Women in general were more likely to find someone guilty than men would, gave tougher prison sentences, and were less likely to accept self-defense as a reason for murdering a person. Women proved they had the ability to serve as members of the jury. They took their duties seriously, but not everyone approved women jury members. Newly elected judges banned women from jury duty in 1871.
Wyoming women got to vote for the first time in September 1870. Many people were curious about what woman suffrage would actually look like. Would women go to the polls now that they were able to do so?
Approximately one thousand women were eligible to vote in Wyoming, and most of them turned out to vote. Noted Wyoming citizen Bill Nye, when asked what woman suffrage looked like in his state, wrote, “No rum was sold, women rode in carriages furnished by the two parties, and every man was straining himself to be a gentlemen because there were votes at stake. A Wyoming election, as I recall it, was a standing rebuke to every Eastern election I ever saw.” Nye was the editor of the Laramie Daily Boomerang, a Wyoming newspaper.
Democrats lost a lot of seats in the second territorial legislature, replaced by Republicans. The remaining Democrats in the legislature blamed woman suffrage for their losses and repealed the new law. However, the Republican governor vetoed the measure and woman suffrage remained in place.
“No legislature has the right to disenfranchise its own constituents,” said Governor Campbell.
Wyoming applied for statehood in 1889. That year, woman suffragists worked hard to elect delegates that were friendly to their cause. Some members of the U.S. Congress tried to remove the woman suffrage clause in the Wyoming charter. The territory’s voters replied that they would become a state that would let everyone vote equally or they would not become a state at all.
In 1890, Wyoming became the 44th state and the first state to have full voting rights for women. The governor at the time, Francis E. Warren, wrote, “Our best people and in fact all classes are almost universally in favor of women suffrage. A few women and a few men still entertain prejudice against it, but I know of no argument having been offered to show its ill effects in Wyoming.”
Wyoming became known as The Equality State. The national suffrage convention in 1891 included this tribute: “Wyoming, all hail; the first true republic the world has ever seen!”
Be a Poll Worker
Becoming a poll worker is a great way to get involved in elections if you are not old enough to vote. Poll workers are important for fair and efficient elections. Go to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's website to find out how to volunteer on Election Day in your area.
In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected governor of Wyoming. She was the first woman to serve as governor in the United States.
Kiwis Lead the Way
In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the same voting rights as men. Australia did the same in 1902, followed by Finland in 1906 and Norway in 1913.
These states and territories gave women full or partial suffrage before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920:
- Wyoming (1869)
- Utah (1896)
- Colorado (1893)
- Idaho (1896)
- Washington (1910)
- California (1911)
- Oregon (1912)
- Arizona (1912)
- Kansas (1912)
- Alaska (1913)
- Illinois (1913)
- North Dakota (1917)
- Indiana (1919)
- Nebraska (1917)
- Michigan (1918)
- Arkansas (1917)
- New York (1917)
- South Dakota (1918)
- Oklahoma (1918)
Wyoming, nicknamed the Equality State, has a fitting state motto: Equal Rights.
update to the U.S. Constitution that allows all citizens the right to vote.
update to the U.S. Constitution allowing women citizens the right to vote.
change made to a law or set of laws.
(1767-1845) 7th president of the United States.
review of a legal decision by a higher court.
generally or near an exact figure.
to greatly surprise.
(Central Pacific Railroad) (1863-1885) railroad network between Utah and California.
document that outlines rules for how a state or other organization will be organized.
(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).
one part of a contract, treaty, or other agreement.
to formally order or give permission to work.
legislative branch of the government, responsible for making laws. The U.S. Congress has two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
system of ideas and general laws that guide a nation, state, or other organization.
disagreement or debate.
(1861-1889) administrative area of the United States, including all or part of the modern states of Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.
representative in government or a person who represents someone else.
to take away certain rights, usually voting.
to grant certain rights, usually voting.
to lure or attract.
nickname for the U.S. state of Wyoming.
having to do with a nation's government (as opposed to local or regional government).
elected or appointed leader of a state or area.
having to do with the governor of a state or area.
to delay or hold back.
process of moving to a new country or region with the intention of staying and living there.
certain to happen, unavoidable.
first step or move in a plan.
person elected or appointed to decide legal cases.
group of people selected to determine facts in a specific case.
justice of the peace
person who is responsible for law and justice in a specific area. A justice of the peace does not need to have an official legal degree or education.
language of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire.
person who is part of an organization that makes laws.
supporting change and reform.
to begin or start.
person who works to ensure safe and fair elections and voting.
unfair feeling for or against someone or something without basis in reason.
on time or quickly.
former state in what is now Germany. Prussia also included parts of Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.
to cleanse thoroughly.
to scold or warn.
to overturn or reject something that was once guaranteed.
system of government where power rests in citizens who vote and representatives who stand for those citizens. The United States is a republic.
to move easily and quickly through something.
the right to vote.
plant whose leaves are smoked or chewed as a mild narcotic.
railroad that spans an entire continent.
Ulysses S. Grant
(1822-1885) 18th president of the United States.
having to do with states supporting the United States (north) during the U.S. Civil War.
railroad company headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. Union Pacific began as part of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad, running from Nebraska to Utah.
right of one branch of government to cancel or delay the action of another.
right of women to vote.
area of land sectioned off in 1868 by the U.S. government. The Wyoming Territory became the state of Wyoming in 1890.