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It All Began In Wyoming

May 2024
14min read

One day in 1869 the gentlemen of the territorial legislature amused themselves by enacting the first woman-suffrage law. They trusted in a veto from the governor

Statue of Esther Hobart Morris in the U.S. Capitol Hall of Columns.
Statue of Esther Hobart Morris in the U.S. Capitol. Architect of the Capitol.

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:


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.

Men passed the law 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In one of his attempts to get the women discharged Prosecutor Downey said that he was acting at the request of the women themselves. However reluctant they may have been to start with, most of the ladies decided to stay after justices Howe and Kingman spoke to them of their duties and the propriety of fulfilling them. Only one woman asked to be excused, reportedly after she had gone home for lunch to find her husband packing his bags in indignation.

Those who stayed to serve as the world’s first women jurors were uncomfortably zealous in interpreting the new territory’s laws. They found statutes on the books forbidding the Sunday operation of saloons and gambling houses. Much to the consternation of Laramie saloonkeepers, the grand jury served notice that the statutes would be enforced. Laramie became known as the “puritan town” of Wyoming—until the 1871 legislature repealed the Sunday laws.

The grand jury also indicted one Andrew Howie, a pale and wan, romantic-looking young man (“Byronic,” one of the lady jurors called him). Howie confessed that he had shot and killed John Hoctor in the barroom of the Shamrock Hotel, explaining that he had walked in to find Hoctor pointing a gun at him, threatening to shoot. He had killed Hoctor, he said, in self-defense.

Usually such an explanation would have stood Howie in good stead. Wyoming juries were chiefly notable for their lenient attitude toward human bloodshed, so much so that vigilante groups operated offand on to dispense the kind of justice the courts did not provide. Tradition had it that the very building in which the women jurors sat belonged to three desperadoes who had been lynched nearby.

But when a petit jury of six men and six women was summoned to deal with Howie’s case, the ladies showed themselves to be otherwise inclined. Three of the men voted on the first ballot for a verdict of not guilty, and three voted for manslaughter. The bailiff attending the ladies (who deliberated in a separate room) reported that one woman, Mrs. I. N. Hartsough, wife of Laramie’s Methodist minister, held out for a conviction of first-degree murder. Two other jurywomen voted for second-degree murder, and three voted for manslaughter.

In prayer sessions led by Mrs. Hartsough the women implored the Highest Court for guidance, the bailiff reported. Mrs. Hartsough frequently injected a Biblical text into their debate: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. …” All the while, she knitted by the stove, a pioneer reincarnation of Madame Defarge.

However, with the approach of Saturday night Mrs. Hartsough’s resolve dissipated. Perhaps her Sunday duties as a minister’s wife inclined her to agree to a compromise. At any rate Howie was convicted of “manslaughter in the first degree” and sentenced to ten years at hard labor.

Like Mrs. Morris, the women jurors were the objects of a good deal of laughter. One waggish husband declared that he had never known how splendid a woman his cook was until his wife “had been locked in a jury room for three nights.” An awkward couplet made the rounds:

Baby, baby, don’t get in a fury; Your momma’s gone to sit on the jury.

The Cheyenne Daily Leader gleefully quoted a national publication that had declared, “We look forward to see the day when the tedium of every trial will be lightened by instrumental music, an occasional song or anecdote from the bench, and perhaps reading or recitations from the female members of the bar, and the introduction of a baby or two to be passed around about lunch time.”

Reports agreed that the women jurors did indeed change some aspects of courtroom behavior. The cards and whiskey disappeared together with the cigars and chewing tobacco. And the women were also given credit for their willingness to administer the law rather than ignore it.

Baby, baby, don’t get in a fury; Your momma’s gone to sit on the jury.

Other positive reports went out from the territory after the women first voted in September, 1870. The ladies didn’t stay home out of mod- esty or lack of interest. Almost all of them took advantage of their new franchise, and their husbands and children suffered no consequent decline. In fact, the polls were reported to be much more pleasant places, since the rowdies, intimidated by the women’s presence, stayed away. “It seemed more like Sunday than election day,” one observer remarked.

Nevertheless, the suffrage law was seriously threatened during the legislative session of 1871. Democratic legislators, apparently miffed that some Republicans had been elected, decided to do in the women voters, whom they suspected of voting Republican. Both houses passed a bill repealing the suffrage act, and antisuffrage forces were anxious to have Governor Campbell sign the bill. So anxious, in fact, that they offered him a two-thousand-dollar bribe. Instead, Campbell vetoed the bill, and the Republicans in the legislature were just strong enough to keep the Democrats from overriding his veto. After that there were no more serious threats to the suffrage law. When Wyoming achieved statehood in 1890, it became the first state where women had full voting rights, and the suffrage law has endured to the present.

Not so with women jurors. After 1871 women were no longer called to serve on Wyoming juries. Judge Howe had retired, and prevailing legal opinion held that jury duty did not necessarily follow from suffrage. Not until 1950 did Wyoming women once again sit on juries.

And although it calls itself the Equality State, Wyoming has not been especially notable for putting its women in office in the century since Esther Morris. The state claims the first woman governor—Nellie Tayloe Ross (1924), and the current secretary of state—Thyra Thomson —is a woman. But both these women entered office in the wake of sympathy after their husbands, who were politicians, died.

Although women got the vote in Wyoming more than a hundred years ago, they still haven’t got the last laugh.

Nor has the hearty cowboy laughter at the expense of the ladies faded out. When the state decided to memorialize Esther Morris in 1955, that action occasioned as much legislative humor as the 1869 suffrage bill. One state senator suggested that the infamous Wyoming outlaw Big Nose George might better represent the state. Another proposed a memorial to Steamboat, the bucking bronco that appears on Wyoming license plates. Some senator with an eye to compromise suggested a statue of Esther Morris riding Steamboat. The discussion degenerated entirely with the question of whether a full-length statue of Mrs. Morris was necessary. Wouldn’t her bust do quite as well?

Needless to say, there were no women in the 1955 Wyoming senate. Although women got the vote in Wyoming more than a hundred years ago, they still haven’t got the last laugh. Even in the Equality State, the ladies have a long way to go.


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