It All Began In Wyoming

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Then there was his wife, Julia. She felt women deserved the vote, and since she was pretty, twenty-one years younger than her husband, and better educated than he, it appeared to him that she had a point. If Negroes could vote, Bright reasoned, didn’t women like his wife deserve the franchise? Encouraged apparently by Edward M. Lee, a bachelor lawyer and ardent suffragist from Connecticut who had been appointed secretary of the territory, Bright introduced the bill granting women the right to vote and hold office into the Territorial Council, or upper house, late in November, 1869. Perhaps because he was president of the Council, the bill was passed with no fuss.

It was quite another case in the House of Representatives. There the bill encountered opponents whose tactics were such a caricature of legislative decorum that they seem to have been trying to laugh it to death. When the bill came up, opponents moved to adjourn. When the motion failed, they repeated it twice more in rapid succession, acting as though their fellow legislators had not heard quite right and deserved a couple of chances to change their votes. On another day, when a motion to recess failed, one legislator suggested that the bill be considered on July 4, 1870—when the legislature would not be in session.

Since the House refused these opportunities to shelve the bill, the opposition attempted to expose the folly of female suffrage with amendments hinting broadly at the dire consequences. Ben Sheeks, a lawyer who led the opposition, moved to substitute “colored women and squaws” for the word “women.” A colleague suggested substituting “ladies” for “women.” After all, if women could cast ballots, might not black women, Indian women, and women of ill repute control the vote?

The House put these amendments down, apparently finding the specters they raised so funny they were not frightening at all. By a vote of 6 to 4 the House passed the measure giving women over the age of twenty-one the right to vote and to hold office.

Strangely, there was little of the frantic activity and high emotion that marked the suffrage movement in the East. Several suffrage speakers had passed through the territory that year, but the few women interested in voting did not organize. But their quiet approach had the unexpected advantage of making suffrage seem a not so serious issue.

Moreover, giving women suffrage was not as radical an action as it would have been in a state where there were more women. The 1870 census shows only 1,049 females over ten years old in the territory. There were 6,107 males. A writer for Harper’s Weekly suggested, “Wyoming gave women the right to vote in much the same spirit that New York or Pennsylvania might vote to enfranchise angels or Martians if their legislatures had time for frivolous gaiety.” The women didn’t seem a significant threat. Besides, giving them suffrage might attract attention—and even immigrants—to the sparsely populated territory.

The Wyoming Tribune described the lighthearted, even lightheaded, legislative mood and offered a reason why the legislators did not view the vote as a weighty matter. “Once during the session,” the Cheyenne paper reported, “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.”

But the veto was not forthcoming. The territorial legislature was solidly Democratic. Not a single Republican had been elected to either house in 1869. However, President Grant had appointed a Republican, John Campbell, as governor of the territory. Campbell was a young man, but he was not naive. He saw that by vetoing the suffrage bill he would cast himself and the Republican Party as the villains of the piece. They would carry the blame for women not being able to vote. So on December 10, 1869, Campbell signed the bill the representatives had had so much fun with. For the first time women had full suffrage rights.

It would be the better part of a year before women would have a chance to exercise their franchise, but wags in the territory quickly insured an earlier testing of the bill. In South Pass City, Justice of the Peace R. S. Barr hit upon a scheme to illustrate the inanity of the new suffrage law. Since women had been granted the right to hold office, Barr offered on February 14, 1870, in a bit of Valentine’s Day irony, to resign his post “whenever some lady elector shall have been duly appointed to fill the vacancy.”

Barr must have smiled to himself at the picture of a woman charged with maintaining law and order in South Pass. James Chisholm, a reporter who visited there in 1868, found the miners’ quick tempers incredible and the liquor they drank near deadly. After a few drinks in a local saloon he scribbled in his journal that he was unable to “write, eat, or think.” During the 1869 elections drunks carrying guns and knives milled around the polls swearing no Negro would vote. They thoroughly beat up one poor fellow who had the temerity to suggest that black men were as much entitled to the franchise as sots were.