It All Began In Wyoming

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Wyoming. The name itself recalls the Old West, where a man was a man. The virile pioneer, eyes squinted against the prairie sun or mountain snowstorm, muscles tense, ready to overcome any human or elemental opposition. The rough, tough cowboy, drawing fast, drinking hard, dying young.

With these images in mind, consider Wyoming’s contribution to Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. The state’s statue stands among marble heroes and bronze statesmen—and it wears a skirt. It is one Esther Hobart Morris, proclaimed by the legend on the base of her statue to be

PROPONENT OF THE LEGISLATIVE ACT IN 1869 WHICH GAVE DISTINCTION TO THE TERRITORY OF WYOMING AS THE 1 st GOVERNMENT OF THE WORLD TO GRANT WOMEN EQUAL RIGHTS

It all seems rather pious, yet astonishing. Why should American women first win the vote in Wyoming, of all places? Cutting through the legends, which are numerous and romantic, one finds that the act did not result from a failure of male authority. Wyoming women did not win suffrage so much as men gave it to them. Men passed the law and set up the tests for it, with some notion that women deserved equality, with the hope that suffrage would stimulate migration by women to femalepoor Wyoming, but also with the attitude that passing and testing the law was a splendid joke, a bit of comic relief in the midst of the anxieties and hazards of frontier life.

William H. Bright of South Pass City introduced the suffrage bill in the 1869 territorial legislature. A forty-six-year-old saloonkeeper and miner who had never been to school, Bright was a reserved man who left little record of himself for the popular imagination to seize upon, and no descendants in Wyoming to tout his role.

On the other hand, lantern-jawed Esther Morris, a lady of heroic (sixfoot) proportions, easily captured the public eye. And two of her sons later became prominent citizens in the state and brought attention to the part their mother had played.

In 1869 Esther Morris travelled from her home in Illinois high into the Wyoming mountains to South Pass City to join her second husband, John, and her three sons, who had arrived earlier, attracted by rumors of fantastic gold discoveries in the Sweetwater Mines. As the legend tells it, Mrs. Morris went to South Pass fired with feminist fervor, partly because she had heard Susan B. Anthony speak in Illinois. And just as important was Mrs. Morris’ experience with the laws that declared women political nonentities. When her first husband died, she had found herself unable to inherit his estate because she was female.

And so, as the popular story goes, Mrs. Morris set out to achieve equality for Wyoming’s women, doing so by manipulating a friend and neighborof hers, namely Bright, into bringing a suffrage bill before Wyoming’s territorial legislature. According to one version, Bright’s wife, Julia, went through a difficult childbirth, an experience all the more agonizing since there were no doctors in the desolate mining town to help her. When the capable Mrs. Morris came to Julia’s aid, she earned Bright’s gratitude, and he was quick to repay his debt to her by introducing the suffrage measure she wanted.

Another version tells of a tea party in Mrs. Morris’ tiny log cabin at which Bright and his opponent in the 1869 territorial elections were present. She interrupted the gathering with a demand for public pledges from both men. No matter which of them was elected, she made them promise, the winner would introduce a suffrage bill.

The stories are indeed appealing. They show a woman, cut off by her sex from the political process, bringing pressure to bear on that process from the outside. More important, they show a determined, dynamic woman achieving equality for other women.

 
 
 

Unfortunately, the stories do not stand up well under scrutiny. The census for South Pass dated June, 1870, described the Brights’s only child as two years old. Since Mrs. Morris didn’t come to South Pass until 1869, the child would have been too old for her to have helped him into the world. The anecdote about the tea party originated with the fellow who lost the election to Bright, and he didn’t come forward with his story until fifty years after the event, when Bright was dead and memories were vague.

The Brights and the Morrises were indeed good friends in South Pass City, but William Bright had motivation closer to home for introducing a suffrage bill. On the one hand he saw Negroes voting. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, the Fifteenth had been approved by Congress early in 1869, and Bright was appalled. A native Virginian, he thought the black man was not up to the franchise.