One of Wyoming's most celebrated suffragist, Esther Hobart Morris, is often credited with originating the Women's Suffrage bill in Wyoming. Though not a member of the legislature herself, she is said to have encouraged its drafting and passage at a tea party at her home in South Pass City in 1869. At this event, she asked both of the Carter County (now Sweetwater County) candidates for a promise that whomever of the two was elected would introduce and act granting women's suffrage to the legislature during the first session.
Though the validity of this claim has been debated many times over the years, the legislative record does show that Col. William Bright, councilman representing Carter County and president of the 1st Territorial Assembly Council, did introduce the bill for the Women's Suffrage Act in 1869.
This story is suspect as very few primary sources exist to support it. Morris herself did not take credit for the legislation, giving it all instead to Bright himself and stating "so far as woman suffrage has progressed in this territory, we are entirely indebted to men." Nor did Bright credit Morris for her influence.
In 1923, Capt. H.G. Nickerson, the other delegate in 1869, submitted a notarized affidavit supporting the story of the tea party to what would become the Wyoming State Archives. He states:
The Real Author of Female Suffrage in Wyoming
To Mrs. Esther Morris is due the credit and honor of advocating and originating woman's suffrage in the United States. At the first election held at South Pass, (then in Carter County, Wyoming) on the 2nd day of Sept[ember] 1869, Col Wm H. Bright, democrat, and myself, republican, were candidates for the first territorial legislature. A few days before election Mrs Morris gave a tea party at her residence at which there were about forty ladies and gentlemen present. Col. Bright and myself being invited for appurpose,[sic] for while sitting at the table Mrs. Morris arose and stated the object of the meeting, She said: "There are present two opposing candidates for the first legislature of our new territory, one of which is sure to be elected, and we desire here and now to receive from them a public pledge that whichever one is elected will introduce and work for the passage of an act conferring upon the women of our new territory the right of suffrage."
Of course we both pledged ourselves as requested, and received the applause of all present. There were no Republicans elected at this first election, the legislature was solidly democratic. Col. Bright, true to his promise, introduced the bill and it became a law. (WSA B-596)
There is debate as to whether this story, attested to more than 50 years after the event, was an embellishment or fabrication by Nickerson or simple truth recorded for posterity at a time when Wyoming's role in suffrage and Morris herself were being celebrated.
The following resources provide additional information on the debate about the legitimacy of the tea party:
The story goes that during the debates surround Wyoming Statehood in Congress in 1889-1890, it was suggested that Wyoming not be admitted until and unless women's suffrage was removed from the proposed state constitution. In reply to this, Wyoming delegates sent a telegram to Congress saying that Wyoming would remain out of the Union 100 years rather than join without women's suffrage.
There may be some truth to this, but the alleged telegraph itself has not come to light.
What we do know for certain is that some members of Congress did oppose Wyoming's admission if women's suffrage was written into the constitution. Wyoming's lone Congressional delegate, Joseph M. Carey, was a vocal supporter of women's suffrage and several delegates to the Constitutional Convention spoke out during the debates declaring their support for the inclusion despite the opposition.
One reference to the telegram comes from the U.S. House of Representatives Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary on Woman Suffrage in 1914. In this document, Mrs. Clara Bewick Colby, corresponding secretary and chairman of the congressional work for the Federal Woman's Equality Association, mentioned the telegram while introducing Wyoming's Frank Mondell, who introduced House Joint Resolution 1 in support of national women's suffrage during the session.
"It is always a great pleasure for us to hear Mr. Mondell, for he speaks for a State that dared in 1869 to settle this question once and for all. They settled it so well that after 21 years' experience with it, when Wyoming wished to come in as a State and its admission was trembling in the balance because it had woman suffrage in its constitution, the men of Wyoming held a mass convention, and they telegraphed to the Delegate, Joseph M. Carey, in Congress, "Stand firm for the women. We will wait 100 years if need be. We will not come in as a State without the women." " -- Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary on Woman Suffrage p10
Another reference to the telegram is made in The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, vol 2 by Ida Husted Harper (1898). In her discussion of the debates in Congress surrounding Wyoming's admission in 1890, Harper writes:
"...The debate continued many days and it looked for a time as if the woman suffrage clause would have to be abandoned if the State were to be admitted. When this was announced to the Wyoming Legislature, then in session, the answer came back over the wire: "We will remain out of the Union a hundred years rather than come in without woman suffrage." " - The Life and Works of Susan B. Anthony vol 2 p699
Transcripts from the Territorial legislative session in 1890, held January 15 - March 14, were not kept so we cannot say for certain that such a telegraph was called for by this body, but neither an official joint resolution nor a memorial to Congress were passed during the session. The "session" referred to may have been the constitutional convention, though they had met the previous September and would not have been in session during any Congressional debates. According to the Journals and Debates of the Wyoming Constitutional Convention (1889), several delegates made declarations of this nature (see quotes box on this page) and it is probable that these sentiments were transmitted to Carey in some form, but Colby and Harper may have taken artistic liberties when quoting the document.
The effect of Wyoming's passage of women's suffrage can be seen in discussions of the topic in other states. Wyoming became a case study for the effects it had on society. The state was often held up as an example of the "civilizing influence" of equal rights for women.
One example can be found in Iowa. Ellen Keane Flynn actively campaigned against women's suffrage from the 1870s to the early 1900s. She felt that voting “would endanger the sanctity of the home. It would lessen the mother’s influence, and, in political crises, would create domestic dissension. She was willing to trust, as in the past, to the manhood of the state.” This was in line with many anti-suffragists of the time.
By May 1916, Flynn had changed her mind on the topic. Her husband had died in 1906, leaving her in charge of her own affairs. Two daughters had entered the professional workforce in Iowa, and a son and his wife were running a sheep ranch near Douglas, Wyoming. Now in her 70s, Flynn told a pro-suffrage rally “I have watched my daughters go out into the business world. I have visited in Wyoming where my son says the women have civilized the state, and I have spent this winter in California where the leading women of the state are suffragists. And I have decided that voting doesn’t take away our femininity.”
Suffragettes are "women seeking the right to vote through organized protest."
Suffragists are "persons advocating the extension of suffrage, especially to women"
According to Governor Joseph M. Carey, Wyoming had many suffragists, but very few suffragettes. Most suffragists were in support of national suffrage as women had already been granted suffrage at the state level in 1869.
When women were given the right to vote in Wyoming territory in 1869, most towns in Wyoming were only a couple years old and society only beginning to establish itself. This meant that there was little "establishment" to fight against. It was a new land with new rules. Though there were women who spoke at public meetings or a society functions, few, if any, accounts exist of women marching in the streets (peacefully or otherwise), unruly protesters, or arrests.
Wyoming's territorial status also helped smooth the path for women's rights. As a territory, a simple majority in both houses of the legislature and the signature of the governor was all that was needed to make a change, even one as big as universal suffrage. In many states, there were additional hurdles like putting the change to a popular vote where at least 50% support was needed.
Some of the women involved in the suffrage movement in Wyoming were great orators. Women like Theresa Jenkins would travel to national conventions or be asked to speak on national circuits in support of equal suffrage.
Many men in Wyoming vocally supported equal suffrage. Without their support, it would have taken much longer to achieve equal suffrage at the state level (1869) and to include it in the state constitution in 1890.
Wyoming's 1st Territorial Governor, one of four positions appointed by President Grant to organize Wyoming Territory. Campbell signed the original Woman's Suffrage Act in 1869 and vetoed its attempted repeal in 1871. Following his veto, he gave a speech declaring his fervent support of the movement.
“There is upon our Statute book an act granting to the women of Wyoming Territory the right of suffrage and to hold office which has now been in force two years. Under its liberal provisions women have voted in the Territory, served on juries, and held office. It is simple justice to say that the women entering for the first time in the history of the country, upon these new and untried duties, have conducted themselves with as much tact, sound judgment, and good sense as the men. While it would be claiming more than the facts justify to say that this experiment, in a limited field, has demonstrated, beyond a doubt, the perfect fitness of women, at all times and under all circumstances, for taking a part the government, it furnishes at least reasonable presumptive evidence in her favor, and she has a right to claim that, so long as none but good results are made manifest, the law should remain unrepealed." -- Governor John Campbell, Message to the Wyoming Legislature, 1871
"The law granting to women the right to vote and to hold office in this Territory, was a natural and logical sequence to the other laws upon our Statute book. Our laws give to the widow the guardianship of her minor children. Will you take from her all voice in relation to the public schools established for the education of those children? Our laws permit women to acquire and possess property. Will you forbid them having any voice in relation to the taxation of that property?" -- Woman Suffrage Message of Governor Campbell to the Legislature of Wyoming, December 4, 1871.
"I need only instance Section 9 of the school act, which declares that, “In the employment of teachers, no discrimination shall be made in the question of pay on account of sex, when the persons are equally qualified" What is more natural than that the men who thought that women were competent to instruct the future voters and legislators of our land, should take the one step in advance of the public sentiment of yesterday, and give to her equal wages for equal work? And when this step had been taken, what more natural than that they should again move forward, this time -- perhaps a little in advance of the public sentiment of to-day -- and give to those whom they consider competent to instruct voters the right to vote?" -- Woman Suffrage Message of Governor Campbell to the Legislature of Wyoming, December 4, 1871.
"The experiment of granting to women a voice in the government, which was inaugurated for the first time in the history of our country, by the first Legislative Assembly of Wyoming, has now been tried for four years. I have heretofore taken occasion to express my views in regard to the wisdom and justice of this measure and my conviction that its adoption had been attended only by good results. Two more years of observation of the practical working of the system have only served to deepen my conviction that what we, in this Territory, have done, has been well done, and that our system of impartial suffrage is an unqualified success." -- Governor John Campbell, Message to the Legislature, 1874
Edward M. Lee
Secretary of the Territory, one of four positions appointed by President Grant to organize Wyoming Territory, Lee was a very vocal supporter of women's suffrage and is thought to have been one of the forces behind the Women's Suffrage Act of 1869, though not a member of the Territorial Assembly.
“Among other acts, a law was passed enfranchising women: thus, by a single step, placing the youngest territory on earth in the
vanguard of civilization and progress.” -- Edward M. Lee, Laws of Wyoming, 1869
Justice John H. Howe
Along with Justice Kingman, Howe was a member of Wyoming's first Supreme Court and one of four appointees by President Grant to organize Wyoming Territory in 1869. Justice Howe called the first female jurors in to the Grand and Petit juries in Laramie in 1870.
Justice John W. Kingman
Along with Justice Howe, Kingman was a member of Wyoming's first Supreme Court and one of four appointees by President Grant to organize Wyoming Territory in 1869. Justice Kingman was a vocal supporter of women's suffrage and published his reflections on the early successes of universal suffrage in the Territory in a pamphlet entitled "Woman Suffrage in Wyoming."
President of Wyoming's 1st Territorial Council. Bright proposed the original Women's Suffrage Act in 1869. He may have been influenced by a social meeting with Esther Morris in South Pass City where she proposed the idea for the legislation. (see Esther Morris' Tea Party side bar) Morris, for her part, gave all the credit for passing the act to Bright. Both Bright and his wife, Julia, were said to be strong supporters of women's rights.
"I have never thought much about it, nor have I been converted by a woman's lecture or newspaper... I knew that it was a new issue... and with strong feeling that it was just, I determined to use all influence in my power to have the bill passed." -- William Bright
Former Wyoming governor and delegate to the Wyoming Constitutional Convention in 1889. Baxter was a vocal supporter of including women's suffrage in the state constitution.
"I am for it, and I believe in it because of that great and overpowering consideration which should influence every man on this floor in casting his ballot, and that consideration is because it is right, because it is fair, and because it is just, and I shall ever regard as a distinguished honor my membership in that convention on which for the first time in the history of all this broad land, rising above the prejudices and injustices of the past, incorporated into the fundamental law of the state a provision which shall secure to every citizen within her borders not only the protection of the courts but the absolute and equal enjoyment of every right and privilege guaranteed under the law to every other citizen." -- George W. Baxter, Wyoming Constitutional Convention, 1889, Journal p. 349
Hon. Melville C. Brown
Wyoming legislator in 1871 during the attempt to repeal women's suffrage and delegate to the Wyoming Constitutional Convention in 1889 from Albany County.
"[Women's suffrage] has become one of the fundamental laws of the land, and to raise any question about it at this time is as improper in my judgement as to raise any question as to any fundamental right guaranteed to any citizen in this territory. I would sooner think, Mr. Chairman, of submitting to the people of Wyoming a separate and distinct proposition as to whether a male citizen of the territory shall be entitled to vote." -- Melville C Brown, Wyoming Constitutional Convention, 1889, Journal p.353
Henry A. Coffeen
Delegate to the Wyoming Constitutional Convention in 1889 from Sheridan County.
"I did not come here with the wish to say anything on this subject. I had in my own mind arrived at the conclusion that this body of men... were already decided upon this question with great unanimity, and were more unanimous perhaps, in favor of woman's suffrage than upon any other question that could possibly come before the convention. I had almost expected that the opposition would not show itself... But it has, and it has taken the shape of a proposition to submit this question separately to the people... The question as I take it is already settled in the hearts and minds and judgment of the people of our glorious state proposed to be, and shall we stand here today and debate over a question when every element of justice and right and equality in our state is in its favor, when not one iota of weight of argument has been made against it? Shall we stand here in long debate when every word that can be said on this question is in favor of continuing the good results of woman's suffrage which we have already experienced for twenty years in this territory? But I am unwilling to stand here and by vote or word or gesture disenfranchise one half the people of our territory, and that the better half. We have come into this grand and glorious territory...this great free land to build up homes, happy homes, but is it for man alone? No, never, but for man, woman and children alike... let us incorporate into the constitution of this coming state, for which we all hope so much, a clause giving full, free and equal enjoyment of the rights of suffrage to all." -- Henry A. Coffeen, Wyoming Constitutional Convention, 1889, Journal p.349-350
Charles W. Holden
Delegate to the Wyoming Constitutional Convention in 1889 from Uinta County.
"Now Mr. Chairman, I believe that I voice the wishes of the people of Uinta when I say that rather than surrender the right which the women of this territory have so long enjoyed, a privilege which they have not only used with credit to themselves but with profit to the country, in which they live, I say rather than surrender that right, we would rather remain in a territorial condition throughout the endless cycles of time."-- C.W. Holden, Wyoming Constitutional Convention, 1889, Journal p. 350
Charles H. Burritt
Delegate to the Wyoming Constitutional Convention in 1889 from Johnson County.
"If we cannot come into the union of states with a platform of right, why then we will stay out and willingly remain in a territorial form of government until all of us have passed away to the grave."-- Charles H. Burritt, Wyoming Constitutional Convention, 1889, Journal p. 357
Wyoming's lone congressman in 1889-90 and later Wyoming governor. Carey campaigned earnestly in congress to approve the proposed Wyoming State Constitution including the universal rights article. During his term as governor from 1911-1915, Carey was a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of woman's suffrage.
"The women of Wyoming have not marched with banners behind a brass band, but they have maintained their equanimity and have exercised their rights as American citizens, doing this without the breaking of glass or the inauguration of miniature revolutions - all of which is to their credit." - Gov. J.M. Carey in a letter to Miss Harriet Noble, Treasurer of the Women's School League of Indiana, March 23, 1911 (WSA RG 0001.18 01.21)
"She is taking her place in every branch of employment without being lowered in the estimation of those who love womanly qualities best, nor has she been lowered in the estimation of men because she has become independent and feels that she has the right, as well as the privilege to make a living for herself. In this way she is certainly being elevated. I was in the territory of Wyoming when the first law was passed. It has been tried out and found to be a good law. Women, in the state of Wyoming, are American citizens, and they are just as reasonable in all things as are men." - Gov. J.M. Carey in a letter to Miss Harriet Noble, Treasurer of the Women's School League of Indiana, March 23, 1911 (WSA RG 0001.18 01.21)
"I have watched the operation of woman's suffrage in this state for many years. The effect of such a law has been good, and there is no reason why women should not have the right to vote and the right to hold office. I believe it is necessary for her protection, and I believe it is necessary for her best and highest welfare. Every argument used against it has fallen to the ground by actual demonstration in this state. In this state women vote; women hold office; and there is no man in the state who does his duty that would take these rights away from her." -- Gov. J.M. Carey in a letter to Miss Linda Stokes Adams, March 25, 1912 (WSA RG 0001.18 01.21)
"As I have watched woman's suffrage for many years, I have no hesitation in saying that if I had my way, I would give woman's suffrage and the right for women to hold office, to the women of every state in the Union." - Gov. J.M. Carey in a letter to Mrs. E.S. Burton, April 11, 1912 (WSA RG 0001.18 01.21)
"Our women are suffragists, but not suffragettes, with the word "militant" attached. It causes no comment in this state and never has. Our elections are absolutely quiet and respectable, and since woman's suffrage has been adopted I have never known of a fight or of any disorderly conduct in any precinct in the state. I have never seen men of any class refuse to extend all courtesy to women approaching the polls, at the polls, or in the convention halls." - Gov. J.M. Carey in a letter to Mrs. E.S. Burton, April 11, 1912 [emphasis his own] (WSA RG 0001.18 01.21)
"I am willing to do anything in my power, that is reasonable, to promote woman's suffrage anywhere and everywhere where the people are intelligent enough to vote. I believe in woman's suffrage." - Gov. J.M. Carey in a letter to Mrs. Harriet Staton Blatch, Woman's Suffrage Headquarters, May 3, 1912 (WSA RG 0001.18 01.22)
"That woman suffrage has been a benifit in this State I do not think can be denied. Women vote just as intelligently as men and I sometimes think more so. Suffrage has not destroyed one womanly character. It has not broken up homes nor caused unhappiness in homes. It has opened a wide field for the employment of women which was not afforded to them before the law gave them the power to vote and hold office." - Gov. J.M. Carey in a letter to Mr. Daniel D. Gibson, Alabama Polytechnic Institute, November 11, 1913 (WSA RG 0001.18 01.22)
"If suffrage is a good thing for men, it is a good thing for women." - Gov. J.M. Carey in a letter to Mr. Daniel D. Gibson, Alabama Polytechnic Institute, November 11, 1913 (WSA RG 0001.18 01.22)
Hon. Frank Mondell
Mondell served as Wyoming's Representative to Congress from 1895-1897, 1899-1923. In 1914, he introduced House Joint Resolution 1 in support of national women's suffrage.
"I think no one will suggest that it is not infinitely more important that the States shall not deny the suffrage to the more virtuous and intelligent half of its citizenship than that they shall not deny the suffrage to people by reason of race, color or previous condition of servitude." -- Rep. Mondell, Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary on Woman Suffrage