Suffrage is defined as the right to vote in elections.
Women in the United States had fought for suffrage since the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1820s. Before the Civil War, women were allowed limited voting in a few states. New Jersey allowed women to vote before their state’s constitution outlawed it in 1844.
In 1869, Congress passed the soon-to-be-ratified 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave all men the right to vote. The amendment didn’t mention women. While the federal government didn’t give women the right to vote at that time, it was still possible for individual states to pass women’s suffrage laws.
In 1869, Wyoming became the first state or territory in the nation to grant suffrage to women on equal footing with men, as well as the rights to hold public office, own and inherit property, and the guardianship of minor children. The territorial legislature attempted to repeal the act in 1871, but Governor John Campbell vetoed the bill. The state constitutional convention debated the inclusion of women's suffrage in 1889 and incorporated it as universal suffrage in Article 6 of the state constitution, making Wyoming the first state to guarantee equal suffrage regardless of gender in the nation.
Railroads and Rights
That same year, the transcontinental railroad was completed, connecting the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific rail lines. This may seem like it has nothing to do with women being allowed to vote, but it was actually very important.
Thousands of workers had come to the American west to work on the railroad. As the population grew, Congress decided to split off a piece of land in the Dakota, Idaho, and Utah territories to create the Wyoming Territory. In May 1869, the same month that the Union Pacific Railroad was open to the public, President Ulysses S. Grant named John A. Campbell the new governor of Wyoming Territory.
The first elections were held in Wyoming Territory in September 1869. William H. Bright, President of the Council of the Wyoming Territorial legislature, introduced a woman suffrage bill in the legislature’s first session. The bill sailed through the Democratic legislature and was quickly signed by the Republican governor.
Younger states and territories like Wyoming were more willing to consider fresh ideas about who could vote. Still, people were a little surprised. Wyoming passed the first woman suffrage law in the United States, with almost no discussion or controversy. Many legislators voted for the bill hoping to increase the territory’s population. Women were scarce out west, and perhaps men were acting desperately to entice them. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 said territories could apply for statehood once the population reached 60,000.
Judge and Jury
The woman suffrage bill not only gave women the right to vote, but also to sit on juries and to run for political office. In February 1870, three women were commissioned as justices of the peace in Wyoming, although only one, Esther Morris, was known to have actually served as a judge. She tried more than forty cases in the territory. She lost none on appeal and was widely regarded as a good judge, but wasn’t nominated for re-election when her term ended.
The first women jurors began their service in March or April of 1870. In T. A. Larson’s A History of Wyoming, the author writes that male jurors stopped smoking and chewing tobacco once women began to serve alongside them. Men stopped gambling and drinking during their jury breaks.
Women in general were more likely to find someone guilty than men would, gave tougher prison sentences, and were less likely to accept self-defense as a reason for murdering a person. Women proved they had the ability to serve as members of the jury. They took their duties seriously, but not everyone approved women jury members. Newly elected judges banned women from jury duty in 1871.
Wyoming women got to vote for the first time in September 1870. Many people were curious about what woman suffrage would actually look like. Would women go to the polls now that they were able to do so?
Approximately one thousand women were eligible to vote in Wyoming, and most of them turned out to vote.
Wyoming applied for statehood in 1889. That year, woman suffragists worked hard to elect delegates that were friendly to their cause. Some members of the U.S. Congress tried to remove the woman suffrage clause in the Wyoming charter. The territory’s voters replied that they would become a state that would let everyone vote equally or they would not become a state at all.
In 1890, Wyoming became the 44th state and the first state to have full voting rights for women. The governor at the time, Francis E. Warren, wrote, “Our best people and in fact all classes are almost universally in favor of women suffrage. A few women and a few men still entertain prejudice against it, but I know of no argument having been offered to show its ill effects in Wyoming.”
Wyoming became known as The Equality State. The national suffrage convention in 1891 included this tribute: “Wyoming, all hail; the first true republic the world has ever seen!”