It All Began In Wyoming

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Nevertheless, Esther Morris felt herself equal to the task; before Valentine’s Day was over, she had filed the necessary papers with the Board of County Commissioners. For some reason now lost to history the board did not appoint her to fill Barr’s office. Instead she received the post that one J. W. Stillman had held. Judge Stillman did not take kindly to Barr’s joke or the board’s decision. He refused to hand his docket over to Mrs. Morris. Her first action as justice of the peace, therefore, was to have Stillman arrested. In the end she dismissed his case, ruling that as an interested party she could not legally have the former justice of the peace arrested. She began a new docket of her own, one that Stillman was not averse to using when Mrs. Morris’ term of office expired and he was back in office.

Life had prepared Esther Morris well for difficult jobs. She had been both an orphan and a widow, neither of which had an easy lot in the nineteenth century. But she had overcome these obstacles, and at fifty-six she had been willing to follow her second husband, John, to the wild gold-mining country of the West.

And if Mrs. Morris was not the prime mover in securing women equal rights, she was a good example of female ability to exercise them. From the living room of her log cabin she dispensed justice fairly and capably. Only a few of her decisions were appealed, and in those cases she was upheld by the appellate court. When the lawyers who appeared in her court tried to embarrass her with legal terms and technicalities, she admitted her lack of training but was quick to let them know just whose court they were in. One of the lawyers who practiced before her recalled that “to pettifoggers she showed no mercy.” Mrs. Morris herself gave a more direct account. She handled quarrelling lawyers, she reported, with a firm “Boys, behave yourselves.”

Laws that proclaimed female inferiority were wrong in her eyes, but she didn’t attribute them to an oppressive society or to male chauvinism. “I do not agree with all that I hear about the enslavement of America,” she said in a speech to the women of Albany County. “The women of America are not enslaved. There are many laws that ought not to be, but the majority of them are the extreme ofliberality.” In a letter to a Washington, D.C., suffrage convention, Mrs. Morris wrote, “So far as woman suffrage has progressed in this territory, we are entirely indebted to men.”

In the early years it was neither Mrs. Morris’ determination nor her moderation that made her newsworthy; it was her sex. Feminist publications like The Woman’s Journal printed details of her activities and described how she had enlisted one of her sons as a law clerk. Male-dominated newspapers attempted to expose her as a typically scatterbrained female. One eastern journalist who claimed to have visited her court reported that she always agreed with whoever spoke last. So the lawyers in her courtroom, he reported, played seven-up to determine who would have the privilege of arguing last—and winning the case.

When a woman achieves fame, of course, there is a kind of disparaging interest in her husband, and if there are no stories good enough, well … For example, according to the reporter just quoted, some South Pass pranksters got Mr. Morris drunk one day and sent him staggering into his wife’s courtroom. She had him put into jail for the night, and the next morning, thoroughly sobered, he begged Her Honor for mercy.

The real John Morris would probably have needed little persuasion to get drunk. He had quite a reputation in South Pass as a brawler, an idler, and a drunk. After her term as justice of the peace was over, Mrs. Morris had a warrant issued for him on a charge of assault and battery. And in 1874 she left him.

Mrs. Morris’ carefully kept court docket, however, does not show John Morris appearing in her court. And the eastern reporter’s entire account about Mrs. Morris seems doubtful in light of his explanation of how she managed as a working mother: poor John had to take over the domestic duties. “The only thing uncompleted in this transfer …” the reporter wrote, “was the obstacle in nature.” The babies, he lamented, had to be bottle-fed. A great joke, except that research reveals that the youngest Morris child was then nineteen.

While Mrs. Morris was serving her term as justice of the peace in South Pass another important test of the suffrage law occurred in Laramie. In March, 1870, the names of women were placed on grand-jury panels. J. W. Kingman, an associate justice for the territory’s supreme court, explained that those who did not appreciate the legislature’s suffrage law instigated the action as a practical joke of their own. “As this was not done by the friends of woman suffrage,” he noted dryly, “there was evidently an intention of making the whole subject odious and ridiculous, and giving it a death blow at the outset.”

According to one of the first women jurors, the ladies themselves regarded the whole thing as a joke until they started thinking that if they didn’t appear in court, they might be arrested for contempt. S. W. Downey, Albany County’s prosecuting attorney, did not find the matter funny. He tried twice to keep women off the jury, but both times he was overruled by Chief Justice J. H. Howe. It wasn’t that he was in favor of suffrage, Howe explained in the Chicago Legal News , but according to the law the legislature had passed, women, once given the right to vote, had the right to sit on juries.