State Historic Site
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 2016 - December 2016
IN THE AUTUMN of 1869, the Wyoming Territorial Legislature enacted a code of laws for the future state. Included was a statute giving women the right to vote. While we might think, “How forward-thinking!” there may have been a more practical reason: Settlement.
The law in question was not adopted in obedience to public sentiment, but because the Territorial lawgivers believed it would operate as a ‘first-class advertisement’; that their action would be telegraphed throughout the civilized world, and public interest thereby aroused, resulting in increased immigration and large accretions of capital to their new and comparatively unknown territory.
So said Wyoming Territorial Secretary Edward M. Lee in an 1872 interview published in The Galaxy. He continued:
Even the women themselves did not appear as petitioners; no pungent satire, or unanswerable argument, or impassioned platform harangue fell from their lips in advocacy of political equality; but the suffrage was conferred solely for advertising purposes.
Suffrage might have been granted as a marketing ploy, but Wyoming women were primed and ready to take advantage of their new rights. When their first opportunity to vote came in September 1870, most of the state’s 1,000 women went to the polls.
Nationwide, women's suffrage had been a controversial issue for decades; not everyone wanted women to vote. As one anti-suffrage magazine warned in a full-page advertisement:
DANGER!! Women’s Suffrage Would Double the Irresponsible Vote! It is a MENACE to the Home, Men’s Employment and to All Business!
Despite the opposition’s best efforts, seventeen million American women gained the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment (Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan were the first states to ratify the amendment, while Tennessee was the last).
FEMALE POLITICIANS IN WYOMING
EVEN BY 1926, many traditional Wyoming women still felt that a woman’s place was in the home, not the Governor’s Mansion. That year, Nellie Tayloe Ross – America's first female governor – was running for reelection (she became governor in 1925 after her husband, Governor William Ross, died in office). Rosa-Maye Kendrick was asked to convince one lady – “a large aggressive woman [who] brooked no opposition” – to overcome her doubts about Mrs. Ross and vote for her. After some hesitation, Rosa-Maye went to work. As she noted in her diary,
Unsure of my position … I proffered my views on life, on Government, on Mrs. Ross. I must have accomplished it somehow for as father and I were about to depart she confided in him her intention of supporting the Governor.
Like Mrs. Ross, some women did more than just vote; they ran for office. In 1911, Dayton, Wyoming, storekeeper Susan Wissler became the first woman mayor in Wyoming, and the first in the nation to serve consecutive terms in office. The former schoolteacher did so, she said, by courting the male vote as well as the female one:
Wyoming is a man’s state, and men are greatly in the majority here. I doubt if anyone could get an office solely on the strength of the woman vote.
From a field full of candidates, Wissler won her first election hands down, receiving thirty-one of the fifty-three votes cast (in a town of 400).
Four Wyoming Governors (AHC)
Nellie Tayloe Ross Campaign Flyer (Hoff Collection, TESHS)