Ray Hunkins: 100 Years Ago This Month, Wyoming Became The Equality State. Here Is How That Happened

One hundred years ago, on August 26, 1920, the United States Secretary of State issued a proclamation declaring that thirty-eight states had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, granting women the right to vote.

August 06, 202023 min read

Ray hunkins headshot cropped

By Ray Hunkins

One hundred years ago, on August 26, 1920, the United States Secretary of State issued a proclamation declaring that thirty-eight states had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, granting women the right to vote. The Amendment, entitled, “Woman Suffrage”, was short:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by a State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Many people believe that the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was the beginning of equal political rights for women in the United States and around the World. Many people would be wrong.

Wyoming was among the 38 states that initially ratified the Amendment. But Wyoming was not a newcomer to women’s suffrage. As a Territory, it had granted women the right to vote in local and Territorial elections. But it had done more. From 1869 forward the women of Wyoming Territory not only had the right to vote, they also had full and equal political rights with men, including the right to run for, and hold, elected political office in the Territory. Wyoming’s radical experiment occurred fifty-one years before the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified

 This is the story of how the political decision was made to grant the few women who were residents of Wyoming Territory in 1869, equal political rights with men. It is the story of why that decision was made in the rough, violent, mostly lawless, women-starved, newly minted territory on the western frontier, called Wyoming. It is the story of Louisa Swain, who at the age of seventy, became the first woman voter in the World to cast a ballot under democratically enacted laws granting women equal political rights with men. It is the story of how Wyoming became the “Equality State”.

 Early on the morning of September 6, 1870, Louisa Swain cast a ballot in rough and tumble Laramie, Wyoming. Although she was the first woman voter, she would be followed that crisp and sunny morning by many others; women who not only exercised their right to vote, but who also exercised their newly granted political right to run for office and hold elected and appointive positions in territorial, state and local government. The result was a cascade of “firsts”: First woman juror, first female bailiff, first woman governor, first female judge, and the list goes on.

Why did this happen on the western frontier instead of in the more refined and cosmopolitan east? What were the conditions that made equal rights for women possible in a frontier territory fifty years before it occurred elsewhere? The answers constitute a story worth the telling.

Civilization in Wyoming followed the progress of construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific. The UP brought a dozen towns to Wyoming where there had been none before, including Cheyenne and Laramie City, as it was then known. The construction crews reached Cheyenne in the summer of 1867 and Laramie early the following year.  The railroad also brought the Army for protection, along with surveyors, tie hacks, graders, bridge builders, tracklayers, ballasting crews and finally, train crews.  According to the papers of General Granville Dodge, the Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific, the construction crews, totaling some 1,000 men, were made up of ex-Confederate and Union Civil War veterans, mule-skinners, Mexicans, Irish, bush whackers, and ex-convicts. It was a rough crowd.

The Army established posts at both Cheyenne (Ft. D.A. Russell- 1867) and Laramie (Ft. Sanders-1866) to protect railroad construction crews from Indian raids.  These military posts were not mobile.  They did not follow the “end of track”. As a result, they were a stabilizing force for both Cheyenne and Laramie after the railroad construction crews had moved west.

Those involved with the construction of the railroad needed goods and services. Purveyors of hard spirits, bawdy- house owners, bartenders, gamblers and pimps arrived almost simultaneously with the track crews. Shopkeepers, liverymen, and settlers followed closely. One such settler was Louisa Swain who arrived with her husband, a cabinet-maker, in Laramie City shortly after the railroad construction crews had moved northwest toward Rawlins. Mrs. Swain would become the World’s first woman voter.

As was typical, the towns that grew up in the wake of the Union Pacific construction, at first swelled and then, when the tracklayers and tie hacks moved on (along with some of the worst elements), the communities either survived as communities, or they became ghost towns. Wyoming had some of both.

Cheyenne, a few weeks after the railroad construction crews came through and headed west to Sherman Hill, had an estimated population of 6,000. Only about 400 of that number were women. In the special census taken in the summer of 1869, after the end of track had climbed Sherman Hill and descended into the Laramie Valley, Cheyenne’s population had shrunk to 2,305. In the special census, all of the large county named Albany, where Laramie City was located, could only count 2,027 people. Only one year later, in the 1870 census, after the track crews had moved into Utah, the whole of Wyoming Territory retained only 8,104 hardy souls, of which 1,000 were women.

In 1864 Wyoming had become a part of Dakota Territory. But the capitol of Dakota, Territory, Yankton, was a long way from Cheyenne, and an even longer way from South Pass City.  There were no direct lines of communication between those two parts of Dakota Territory and the two parts were separated by Indian lands, some of which were occupied by hostiles.

 Responding to the cries for law and order and the urging of those in Wyoming for a government closer to the people, Wyoming was removed from Dakota and became a separate Territory. President Johnson signed the act creating Wyoming Territory on July 25, 1868. On that day the Union Pacific tracklayers were approaching Rawlins.

Wyoming became a separate territory, at least in part, because Congress’ attention was focused on the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the expectation that settlement would occur along its route. .

The desire for “law and order” in Wyoming, and especially in Laramie City, was well founded.  On June 12, 1868, Laramie City residents went to the polls and elected a provisional Mayor. Three weeks later he resigned. In a letter to a local newspaper, he explained the town was “ungovernable”. The rest of the elected officials promptly followed suit. The Journal of American History described the conditions that led Laramie City to be nicknamed, “Hell on Wheels”:

Asa Moore, proprietor of the Diana and the Belle of the West, with the support of

the other saloon, brothel and gambling establishment owners formed a rump

government with himself as mayor and justice of the peace. Sam Duggen, one of

Moore’s henchmen, was appointed town marshall. Duggan did have some familiarity with

the law, having been acquitted of murder in Cheyenne just prior to his arrival in Laramie.

His deputy, Edward Franklin, had his law enforcement career curtailed when he was shot

and wounded while stealing mules from the Army and was incarcerated in the Fort Sanders

guard house. Throughout the summer of 1868 the town ran wide open day and night.

Shootings and murders occurred daily and after dark respectable citizens stayed off the

Streets. Laramie City was truly, ‘Hell on Wheels’.

In frustration with the lawlessness in Laramie City, a growing number of law-abiding residents supported the formation of the largest vigilante group in the West, some 500 strong. They hung, shot, rousted and ran out of town, the worst elements of Laramie City’s criminal class.

Meanwhile in Cheyenne, the first territorial legislature convened on October 12th, 1869.  William H Bright from the western Wyoming mining town of South Pass City, known as, “ Colonel Bright”, was elected President of the first territorial legislature’s upper chamber, known as, “The Council”.  Colonel Bright was a southern gentleman and reported to be a veteran of the Confederate Army. He was also a Democrat. Colonel Bright had made the long trek from South Pass City in far western Wyoming, to Cheyenne with his mind made up that enfranchisement of women should commence in the Territory and that it should be a priority of the first legislative session.

 Esther Hobart Morris, destined soon to become the first woman ever to hold judicial office, was also from South Pass City. South Pass City was not a large community and it is almost certain that Col Bright and Ms. Morris were acquainted, and probably well acquainted. Although there is no record of it, it is probable that the two discussed Colonel Bright’s intention to introduce legislation enfranchising women when he got to Cheyenne for the commencement of the first Territorial legislative session.

On the morning of November 9th, 1869, Col Bright took to the floor of the Council and announced that on the following Monday, “or some subsequent day”, he would introduce, “a bill for women’s rights”. Good to his word, the bill was introduced on November 27th as Council Bill Number 70 and was entitled, “An Act To Grant To The Women Of Wyoming Territory The Right Of Suffrage And To Hold Office”. Council Bill Number70 came up for final passage on December 6th, 1869. On final reading the votes were Yeas 6, Nays 2, with one absence. The lower chamber concurred and Territorial Governor Campbell, a Republican appointed by President Grant, signed the bill. It became law on December 10th, 1869. In relevant part, it provided:

     Sec.1. That every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this territory, may

                  at every election to be holden under the laws thereof, cast her vote. And her

                   rights to the elective franchise and to hold office shall be the same under the

                  election laws of the territory, as those of electors.

     Sec.2.  This act shall take effect and be in force from and after its passage.

The 1869 territorial legislature also passed bills to protect the right of married women to hold property and earn income and an equal pay requirement for school teachers of different genders, “when the persons are equally qualified”. The lower house even adopted a resolution setting aside a seating area for, “ladies who may desire to attend the deliberations….” It can readily be seen that the Territory’s legislators had an interest in women’s rights that were not shared in other parts of the Country. In that respect, Wyoming was fifty years ahead of its time.

After the bill to grant women equal political rights became law, the first subsequent election was on September 6th 1870. The first woman to cast her ballot at that election was Louisa Swain.

Louisa Swain was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1800 or 1801. Her father was a seafaring captain, lost at sea when Louisa was a youngster.  When she cast her ballot, Louisa was 70 years old and a grandmother. She was also highly regarded by the law-abiding element of Laramie City. Some evidence suggests Louisa Swain was selected to cast the first ballot by the ladies of Laramie at a meeting held the night before the election was to take place. On the morning of the election, Mrs. Swain put on a fresh, clean apron over her housedress. She walked to the polls early in the morning unaided and unattended, carrying a little bucket for yeast to be bought at the bakeshop on her return home. Bystanders stood and watched as she approached the polling place when it opened. A witness reported that Mrs. Swain made a determined effort to be the first voter at the polls. The Journal of American History recites, “it is interesting to note that the domestic instinct was not consumed by the new political opportunity and that the judge of elections recorded the vote of this gentile, determined, white haired woman with more than an ordinary degree of reverence.” After casting her ballot, Mrs. Swain went to the bakeshop, picked up her yeast, and went home to bake bread. Meanwhile, ninety-two other women cast their ballots that day in Laramie City.

The day after her historic vote, the Laramie Daily Sentinel ran an editorial, which read in part,

“Mrs. Swain is an old lady of the highest social standing in our community,

universally beloved and respected, and the scene was in the highest degree

Interesting and impressive. There was too much good sense in our community

                    for any jests or sneers to be seen on such an occasion”.

The Republican Boomerang reported the event as a, “shot heard round the world”. Dispatches and cables heralded the news of universal suffrage for Wyoming Territory. The “big little Territory” was on the map.

Colonel Bright, ever gallant, was reported to have offered this toast at a gathering on election night: “Here’s to the lovely ladies….once our superiors, now our equals”.  

In the East, outside of the suffragette community, there was only passing interest, and that mostly evidenced by snide remarks and snobbery. For instance, The Nation, in its March 5, 1870 edition, slandered Wyoming women with this:

The experiment [women’s suffrage] is also being made in Wyoming Territory; but

The women there are but a handful, and, it is said, leave much to be desired, to use

a very safe and convenient Gallicism on the score of character, so that their use

of the franchise will hardly shed much light on the general question.

Scrivner’s Monthly, opined in February, 1875,  “it seems far more likely to us that within ten years Wyoming will ‘go back’ on her woman suffrage record, than that any State of the Union will follow her present example”. Scrivner’s came close to being prophetic.

The euphoria in Wyoming caused by the unique experiment in granting women full and equal political rights with men, did not last long. The Democrats (assisted by a Republican Governor), having achieved fame and approbation by passing the first legislation granting women equal political rights with men, soon began to backslide and lend credence to Scrivner’s.

In 1871 the Second Territorial Legislature convened. The First Territorial Legislature had become famous and took pride in its place in history at being the first legislative body ever to have passed laws granting women equal political rights with men. Two short years later, the Second Territorial Legislature convened and became the only territorial or state legislature ever to attempt to deprive women of political rights.

On November 16, 1871, Democratic Representative Castle introduced a bill to repeal women’s suffrage as House Bill Number Four. In contrast to the First Territorial Legislature, which was solidly Democratic, in both the upper and lower chambers of the Second Territorial Legislature, there was a scattering of Republicans. The Journal of American History explained: “it was evident from the moment it was introduced, nine days after the legislature convened, that there was a determined effort on the part of the Democrats to repeal the law which had given women the right to vote”.

Why did the Democrats in the Second Territorial Legislature do an about face and attempt to abolish equal political rights for women? The most likely answer is that in an era before the secret ballot, the women of the Territory were known to have voted Republican. Indeed, the election of the Territorial delegate to Congress, a Republican, was attributed to the female vote in the 1870 election. The Democrats had had enough of the experiment. Women suffrage was not serving the Democrats’ political interest.

The day after the bill to repeal women’s equal political rights was introduced, it passed the House by a vote of nine to three, with one absent. The three votes against repeal were all Republicans; the nine for repeal were all Democrats. The bill to repeal was then sent to the upper chamber. Here also, the bill to repeal the landmark law granting women equal political rights met opposition only from the Republican members.  The repeal bill passed the Council, five Democrats voting for it and four Republicans voting against it. The repeal bill, having passed both houses of the Territorial Legislature, was sent to Territorial Governor John A. Campbell, a Republican.

Governor Campbell, without hesitation, promptly vetoed the repeal bill. In his message Governor Campbell explained his veto: 

            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 in every respect with as much tact, shrewd judgment, and good

            sense as men.

In order to pass the repeal bill over the Governor’s veto, a two-thirds vote of each chamber was required. In the House the vote to override, “the Governor’s veto to the contrary not withstanding”, was nine Democrats, in favor, two Republicans against and two absences. Thus on December 9, 1871, the bill to override passed the lower chamber by the required two-thirds majority, with no votes to spare.

The fate of the Territory’s experiment with equal political rights for women was now in the hands of the Territory’s upper chamber, the same chamber that had given birth to equal political rights for women two years earlier. If the Governor’s veto was to be overridden, the Council was also required to pass the legislation by a two-thirds majority. Here also, the veto override failed on a strict party line vote. All five Democrats voted aye, and all four Republicans voted nay.  The Council’s Journal reported the results: “There not being a two-thirds vote the bill was lost”.

Thus by the slimmest of margins, the Republicans assured that Wyoming would not become the only political subdivision in the Nation to ever abolish equal political rights for women. Had one Republican faltered in his conviction, in either chamber, Governor Campbell’s veto would have been overridden and women’s political equality would have been lost for many years.

It is ironic that history would allow both political parties to claim they were the true champions of women’s equal rights. The Democrats could claim they fostered the experiment and the Republicans could claim they preserved it. Both would be right.

The citizens of Wyoming Territory became comfortable with the idea of women suffrage. Ten years after the bill granting women equal political rights was passed and signed into law, the Speaker of the Wyoming House observed: “My conclusions are that the household or family is more interested in good government than a single man is, or indeed can be, and if good government be the ultimate sought by a civilized people, I see no safer, wiser or better way of securing that object than by a ballot in the hand of a woman.”

The year before Wyoming became a state, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Wyoming Territory remarked:

It [women suffrage] has been weighed and not found wanting. It has made our elections quiet and orderly. No rudeness, brawling or disorder appears or would be tolerated at the polling booths. There is no more difficulty or indelicacy in depositing a ballot in the urn than in dropping a letter in the post office.”

In anticipation of statehood, Wyoming elected delegates to a constitutional convention that convened in September of 1889. Forty-nine delegates attended the convention, all of them men. On the fourteenth day of the convention, a delegate from Cheyenne proposed that women’s suffrage be put to a separate vote of the people before being incorporated into the new state constitution. The proposal was hotly debated by those in favor of and opposed to the idea of equal political rights for women. Those in favor of submitting the issue to a vote of the people argued that some of their constituents were opposed to woman suffrage but in favor of statehood and would vote against the proposed constitution if it contained a section allowing for woman suffrage.  The sponsor of the proposal, who said he was in favor of equal political rights for women, argued that such a provision was a departure from the norm and therefor should be subject to a separate vote of the people who had never had a chance to vote on the subject.

Delegate Hoyt summarized the sentiment against the proposal:

No man has ever dared to say in the territory of Wyoming that woman suffrage is a failure. We stand today proud, proud of this great experiment….Why then this extraordinary proposition?

The proposition failed on a vote of twenty against and eight for.  The constitution, with provisions mandating equal political rights for women, was passed unanimously by the convention and on November 5, 1889; the citizens of what would soon be the State of Wyoming adopted it. Two separate constitutional provisions touched upon equal political rights for women.  Article 1, Section 3 provided:

Equal political rights.

Since equality in the enjoyment of natural and civil rights is only made sure through political equality, the laws of this state affecting the political rights and privileges of its citizens shall be without distinction of race, color, sex, or any circumstance or condition whatsoever other than individual incompetency, or unworthiness duly ascertained by a court of competent jurisdiction.

That provision by itself was apparently too obtuse for the assembled delegates and they addressed the subject of woman suffrage and equal political rights again, and more directly, in Article 6, Section one, which provided:

Male and female citizens to enjoy equal rights.

The rights of citizens of the state of Wyoming to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this state shall equally enjoy all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.

Wyoming citizens had spoken on the subject of women’s political rights, both through their elected delegates to the constitutional convention, and directly in adopting the constitution. But, opponents of the Wyoming experiment had one more opportunity to express themselves.

Only months after the constitution was approved by the citizens of Wyoming territory, Congress took up Wyoming’s petition to be admitted as a state in the “Union of States” There was opposition from the Democrats, especially in the House of Representatives. Though the Democrats were not keen on the admission of another Republican leaning state, one of the main articulated objections had to do with the evils of Wyoming’s experiment with woman suffrage. Nevertheless, the House of Representatives passed the act by an uncomfortably close vote of 139 to 127. The Senate followed suite and Wyoming became a state on July 10, 1890.

In 1893, the Wyoming state legislature provided for a “great seal of the state of Wyoming”. The bill stated in part:

Standing upon the pedestal shall be a draped figure of a woman, modeled after the statute of the ‘Victory of the Louvre,” from whose wrists shall hang links of a broken chain and holding in her right hand a staff from the top of which shall float a banner with the words “Equal Rights” thereon, all suggesting the political position of women in this state.

That language was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Wyoming’s governor twenty-seven years before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It remains law today.

Now you now know the story of how Wyoming became the, “Equality State”. But the question remains, why Wyoming and not some other state or territory? Why did this happen in a frontier territory, at the very edge of civilization? What was it about the culture of the frontier, of Wyoming, that made such an event possible?

We have seen how women vastly outnumbered by men as construction of the Union Pacific moved west through Wyoming. Women were precious few and because that was so, they were precious. Decent women were respected and put on a pedestal. Their honor was defended and their detractors attacked, sometimes with a vengeance. State and local laws and ordinances were passed which sought to punish men, sometimes severely, for insulting women. Cowboys were sometimes even afraid to talk with respectable women for fear of getting into trouble. One social scientist reported that Wyoming ranch hands about the turn of the century would shout out a warning to their friends, “Church time” when a married woman approached and then would lapse into respectful silence until she had passed.

Side by side with this respect for “decent women” was a proclivity toward violence, alcohol, rowdiness and a preoccupation with women of the night. . Over and over again contemporary reviews of the success of suffrage in Wyoming focus on improvement in decorum at the poling places. The absence of drunkenness and rowdiness at the polling places was attributed to the presence of women.

There is no doubt that those who began to settle the West, looked forward to civilizing it. Mostly, they yearned for peace and tranquility. Men conquered the territory but women made it habitable. There was also the belief that if women could vote the effort to civilize the territory would b easier. As one Wyoming stockman from long ago put it,  “I always said that I wanted a woman to walk beside me, not behind me”. That is why Wyoming became the Equality State.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This is courtesy of the Louisa Swain Foundation, publisher of “The View From Thunderhead” by Ray Hunkins. This piece is the first chapter of that book which is a project of the Foundation in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the world’s first woman voter. The Foundation will commemorate Louisa Swain’s vote 150 years ago, and passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States 100 years ago, at the Foundation’s History House in Laramie, 317 S. 2nd Street, on September 6th, 2020, “Louisa Swain Day”.

Share this article