(WOMENSENEWS)–In the East after the Civil War, the women’s movement was thousands strong and dividing into two camps. Not so in the West. The Wyoming Territory was a chaotic mix of mostly transient men–settlers on western-moving wagon trains, gold miners, gamblers, railroad workers and saloonkeepers. Still, without much urging or debate, the territory’s first legislature, by a vote of 13-6, passed a bill giving women the right to vote and hold office.
On Dec. 10, 1869, the governor signed it into law. It was largely a public relations move. The territory needed settlers and stability, both of which everyone believed women would provide. Far from being seen as equals, women were considered morally superior beings who would bring law and order to an unruly place.
A prime supporter and beneficiary of the bill was 6-foot tall, 57-year-old Esther Hobart Morris. Originally from upstate New York, Morris had supported herself as a milliner until marriage. In 1842, widow Morris went to Illinois, hoping in vain to inherit her deceased husband’s family property. (Women could not inherit.) Later, she and her children followed her second husband to Wyoming.
After the bill’s passage, Morris was appointed Justice in Park Pass City, where she adjudicated more than 40 cases in eight months. Throughout the territory, women served on juries, gambling was declared illegal, saloons were forced to close on Sundays, female teachers got equal pay and parents had equal rights over the children. Susan B. Anthony urged women to move to the paradise that was Wyoming.
When Wyoming applied for statehood in 1890, its women’s rights were a stumbling block, because the U.S. Congress had not accorded equal rights to women, but the legislature held fast: “We may stay out of the Union 100 years, but we will come in with our women,” read the message sent East. And they did. Wyoming was admitted to the Union in 1890 and the United States gave women the right to vote in 1920.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand on: Women as Agents of Change.”
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Architect of the Capitol:
Esther Morris statue in the National Statuary Hall: