Category Archives: Women’s Suffrage

This Day in Wyoming History: Nellie Tayloe Ross Elected Governor in 1924

On November 5, 1924, Wyoming made history by electing Nellie Tayloe Ross governor, once again shattering a glass ceiling for women. The state that led the way in women’s suffrage became one of two that year to elect a female chief executive.

Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross seated at her desk in the Governor's Office, Wyoming State Capitol Building, 1924-1926. Ross was the first female governor in the United States. She and MA Ferguson of Texas were both elected on November 5, 1924, but Ross took office before Ferguson. (WSA Sub Neg 2260)

Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross seated at her desk in the Governor’s Office, Wyoming State Capitol Building, 1924-1926. Ross was the first female governor in the United States. She and Ma Ferguson of Texas were both elected on November 5, 1924, but Ross took office before Ferguson.
(WSA Sub Neg 2260)

Just over a month before, Nellie had been just another first lady, albeit a very involved one. Her husband, Governor William B. Ross, had bucked the Republican stronghold on Wyoming politics and was elected Governor in 1924, despite a lack of support from Senator John B. Kendrick of Sheridan, Wyoming’s Democratic powerhouse. Nellie was her husbands constant helper, companion and confidant, even writing and refining speeches for him.

Governor William B. Ross standing on the steps of the Governor's Mansion following his inauguration. His wife, Nellie, was offered the Democratic nomination for governor following his unexpected death in 1924. (WSA Bristol Collection 31-8)

Governor William B. Ross standing on the steps of the Governor’s Mansion following his inauguration. His wife, Nellie, was offered the Democratic nomination for governor following his unexpected death in 1924.
(WSA Bristol Collection 31-8)

In September 1924, she accompanied him on a tour of the state to promote his plan to introduce a proposal for constitutional amendment for a mineral severance tax. Following his well-received speech in Laramie on the 23rd, William came down with what he thought was a bad case of indigestion. By the time a doctor was called the next evening, his appendix had ruptured and there was little the specialists from Denver could do once the sepsis set in. William hung on until October 2, with Nellie at his side as often as the doctors would allow. Nellie was devastated by the loss.

Nellie was a considerate corespondent and dutifully sent many hand written thank you notes. This one was sent to Gertrude Hicks in thanks for flowers for William funeral.

Nellie was a considerate corespondent and dutifully sent many hand written thank you notes. This one was sent to Gertrude Hicks in thanks for flowers for William funeral. “You, perhaps, can understand something of the desolation his going has left in my heart – Truly it is unspeakable.”
(WSA H64-36)

William was buried in the family plot in Cheyenne on the 4th. Following his funeral, chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Committee Dr. J.R. Hylton, called on Nellie to offer his sympathies and a novel opportunity. How would she like to run for governor to serve out her husband’s term?

Almost as soon as Frank Lucas took over as acting governor, he had called for a special election for governor as statue mandated. There was no time to lose since the general election was coming up on November 5. Including the governor’s race would save the state time and money. But that meant that both parties had only one month to produce candidates and organize a campaign. Who better to take up the Democratic platform than Nellie?

Nellie's suporters were quick to point out that it would be an honor for the

Nellie’s supporters were quick to point out that it would be an honor for the “Equality State” to be the first to elect a woman as governor.
(WSA Cheyenne Daily Leader November 3, 1924)

Against her brother George’s council, Nellie turned down the offers of a comfortable position as a clerk or even State Librarian and accepted the party’s unanimous nomination on October 14. Still in mourning, Nellie declined to campaign for herself. But this did not stop her supporters from taking out newspaper advertisements and publishing literature on her behalf. Even Senator Kendrick endorsed her campaign saying:

No one who has even a passing acquaintance with Mrs. Ross would for a moment doubt her qualifications to act as chief executive of this state. She is highly educated, intensely practical, and is inherently conscientious in the fulfillment of every responsibility. It is a well-known fact that no husband and wife ever lived in our state’s capitol whose relationship was more intimately devoted, and there has perhaps never been an official of the state whose wife enjoyed more fully his complete confidence in his every public act than Governor Ross. She was his chief counselor, and, as he often said, his most severe critic, and his record of service clearly indicates the wisdom of her counsel. — Cheyenne Daily Leader October 29, 1924

Senator and former Governor, John B. Kendrick endorsed Nellie's campaign for governor.  (WSA Cheyenne Daily Leader 10-29-1924)

Senator and former Governor, John B. Kendrick endorsed Nellie’s campaign for governor.
(WSA Cheyenne Daily Leader October 29, 1924)

Despite running as a Democrat, Ross, like her husband before her, made it clear she was her own woman and would not necessarily follow strict party lines.

I am not unmindful of the great responsibility this office entails and… I shall expect and feel in duty bound to make my own decisions in every case… Under no circumstances would I have accepted this nomination had not my familiarity with and my interest in my husband’s work given me an understanding of the problems of the office and a reliance upon my own ability to assume the responsibilities laid down by him. — Cheyenne Daily Leader 11/3/1924

She also made it known that she was of a mind with her late husband and would follow his lead in many areas.

Ross had her detractors, though in deference to her recent loss they tended to be more discrete than in most campaigns. On the eve of the election, Edna Bartlett of Cheyenne published a lengthy political editorial in the newspaper addressing what she saw as the unfounded and wrong assumptions of her fitness for office, and the unfitness of women in general for politics.

We want to answer an objection to Mrs. Ross’ election that is sometimes heard: “I am afraid she isn’t strong enough.” Of course those who know Mrs. Ross personally don’t pay any attention to this: we know that her political enemies have to think of something to say against her election and it is absolutely impossible to say anything against the lady herself, they are forced to attack her strength, sometimes under a pretense of solicitude for her. — Cheyenne Daily Leader November 3, 1924

Edna Bartlett's methodical, logical response to many of Nellie detractors pointed out what she saw as the flaws in the logic against a woman, and Nellie in particular, serving as governor.  (WSA Cheyenne Daily Leader 11-3-1924)

Edna Bartlett’s methodical, logical response to many of Nellie detractors pointed out what she saw as the flaws in the logic against a woman, and Nellie in particular, serving as governor.
(WSA Cheyenne Daily Leader November 3, 1924)

Bartlett goes on to counter such arguments as:

– No woman has the strength to be Governor — “if the Governor’s job was moving pianos or making steel or prize fighting we wouldn’t want a woman governor. But the… quality which determines the winner in these cases is endurance.”

– Women are inferior to men in endurance — “Rather the contrary. Ask your doctor [about childbirth]… There is every reason to believe that [Mrs. Ross] has more of the kind of physical strength needed by an executive than many men who have held the office of Governor or who aspire to it.”

– Strength of mental character and spirit — “Read her letter of acceptance and her letter to the women and note in them the evidence of mental and moral strength, how clear-cut her views, how firm her expression of them!”

– Women are all emotional — “Well, we are willing to concede this… and that Mrs. Ross may be, for here is one of her strong points. She is governed by one emotion:… love… The noble emotion of love will keep her clear-headed and steady… Who can doubt that this emotion is her strength and will mean wisdom and justice for the benefit of the whole state?”

On election day, Nellie watched out the window of the Governor’s Mansion as voters filed into the carriage house, a designated local polling place. Her fate was in their hands.

Nellie won the governor's race in 1924. She was the only Democratic candidate elected to a statewide office in Wyoming that year. (WSA Cheyenne Daily Leader 11-5-1924)

Nellie won the governor’s race in 1924 as the only Democratic candidate elected to a statewide office in Wyoming that year. Her win was much less contested than that of MA Ferguson of Texas.
(WSA Cheyenne Daily Leader November 5, 1924)

In the end, the people of Wyoming elected her by an almost 8,000 vote (55%) majority over E.J. Sullivan. In 1926, she ran for re-election again with a promise of “no pledges except to the people.” She was very narrowly defeated by Frank Emerson. In 1933, she was appointed director of the United States Mint, a position in which she served with distinction as both the first woman and longest-serving (20 years) director.

Newly elected Governor Nellie Taylor Ross signs her oath of office in the Governor's Office, January 5, 1925. (WSA Sub Neg 12564)

Newly elected Governor Nellie Taylor Ross signs her oath of office in the Governor’s Office, January 5, 1925.
(WSA Sub Neg 12564)

Fliers from Nellie's unsuccessful re-election campaign of 1926. (WSA H62-42)

Fliers from Nellie’s unsuccessful re-election campaign of 1926.
(WSA H62-42)

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Filed under This Day in Wyoming History..., Women's Suffrage, Wyoming Governors

Esther Morris Turns 50…

Or at least her statue turned 50 earlier this month. On December 8, 1963, the bronze statue of Esther Morris was unveiled in front of the Wyoming State Capitol Building.

Secretary of State Thrya Thomson standing beside the statue of Esther Morris. This photo was taken during the 75th Anniversary of statehood celebration in 1965.  (WSA Sub Neg 2669)

Secretary of State Thyra Thomson standing beside the statue of Esther Morris. This photo was taken during the 75th anniversary of statehood celebration in 1965.
(WSA Sub Neg 2669)

The bronze is a replica of the sculpture on display in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Sculpted by Avard Fairbanks, the statue commemorates Esther Hobart Morris and those who worked to give Wyoming’s women the right to vote in 1869. This piece was the first to represent the state of Wyoming in the national capitol and was joined by one depicting Chief Washakie in 2000. The statue of Morris was the third to depict a woman in the statuary hall.

The story of the statue starts in 1953 when the State of Washington presented their statue depicting Doctor Marcus Whitman. Apparently, it was mentioned during the presentation that Whitman and his wife had crossed South Pass in 1853 on their way to Washington. Senator Lester Hunt, the man behind the bucking horse license plate, witnessed the ceremony and the wheels began to turn. In November of that year, he finally wrote a letter to Frank Bowron, president of the Wyoming Historical Society, laying out his grand vision.

“Each time as my work in the Capitol takes me through this great room of Americana, I have a renewed desire to see Wyoming represented among our sister states…”

(WSA RG0013, Esther Morris Memorial Commission)

Hunt’s letter to Frank Bowron.
(WSA RG0013, Esther Morris Memorial Commission)

Hunt felt that the women of Wyoming would be best qualified to handle the project. Though he proposed to leave the decision in their capable hands, he did offer the suggestion that perhaps Esther Morris should be memorialized for her work in championing suffrage in the state.

The official Esther Morris Memorial Commission was created by Governor Simpson in 1955, at the request of the State Legislature. The Wyoming State Historical Society asked interested parties around the state for their opinion as to who should be memorialized. Morris was by far the most popular, with Jim Bridger coming in a weak second. But not everyone was happy with the decision. Dr. T.A. Larson, professor of history at the University of Wyoming, wrote several lengthy letters to the editor of the Laramie Boomerang that were published. He believed that was little proof that Morris was as influential as folklore claimed she was.

Once the decision was made to immortalize Morris, members raised the funds necessary and commissioned Dr. Avard Fairbanks, who had inspired Sen. Hunt with his statue of Whitman.The statue was unveiled in Washington D.C. in 1960 with former Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross representing the state and office of the governor. State Representative Endness Wilkinson made the official presentation. All three of Wyoming’s congressmen, Sen. Joseph O’Mahoney, Sen. Gale McGee and Rep. Keith Thomson also spoke at the ceremony.

Tourism Photos, Esther Morris statue unveiling crop1

Removing the covering from the statue. Secretary of State Thyra Thomson watches to the side.
(WSA Dept of Tourism slide)

In 1961, the State Legislature provided $7500 to place a replica of the statue to be placed at the state capitol building. The Commission was organized by Governor Jack Gage and consisted of seven citizens, some of whom had served on the original commission.

On a clear but chilly December day in 1963, the statue was finally placed in front of the Capitol Building. According to the newspaper “A crowd of 125… stuck by the ceremonies despite temperatures in the low 30s and a bone-chilling wind which caused most speakers to pare their remarks drastically.” Thyra Thomson stated that this statue honored not only the women of Wyoming but also “the men who put action to their words.”

Tourism Photos, Esther Morris statue unveiling crop2

Governor Cliff Hansen, the only male speaker at the ceremony, gives his very brief comments. According to the newspaper he “skipped all but the last paragraph of his prepared speech.” The Central High School band, who provided the day’s music, is seated on the steps of the Capitol behind him.
(WSA Dept of Tourism slide)

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Filed under State Symbols, This Day in Wyoming History..., Women's Suffrage

Happy Wyoming Day!

Since it became official in 1935, the State of Wyoming has celebrated Wyoming Day on December 10th. Why December 10th and not July 10th, the day we became a state? Well, because the ladies of the Wyoming Federation of Women’s Clubs requested it be celebrated in December. From 1917 until it became official in 1935, each state legislature passed a resolution proclaiming December 10th Wyoming Day.

December 10th holds a special place in the history of Wyoming and the nation because on that day in 1869, Territorial Governor John A. Campbell signed the bill known as the women’s suffrage act into law. This was the first legislation passed to insure women the right to vote in all state-wide elections and the right to hold public office. The law predated the 19th Amendment by 51 years.[1]

The original 1869 act, signed on December 10, 1869, granting the women of Wyoming the right to vote and hold public office.

The original 1869 act, signed on December 10, 1869, granting the women of Wyoming the right to vote and hold public office.

During the Wyoming Constitutional Convention in 1889, the delegated debated whether and how suffrage should be included in the new state’s laws. During these debates, Melville C. Brown of Albany County, and president of the convention, provided the following summary of the history of suffrage in Wyoming:

“It has been said….that the proposition to give women the right to vote in Wyoming was originally presented in jest. I think the rumor is not well founded. It is well-known among the early residents of this territory that the then president, or presiding officer of one branch of the legislature, a Mr. Bright, of the county of Sweetwater, was an honorable and able advocate of the right of suffrage to women and of granting that right to women.[2]

William H. Bright, legislator from Carter (now Sweetwater) County and president of the Council, introduced the bill for women's suffrage to the 1869 Territorial Legislature. (WSA Sub Neg 1468)

William H. Bright, legislator from Carter (now Sweetwater) County and president of the Council, introduced the bill for women’s suffrage to the 1869 Territorial Legislature.
(WSA Sub Neg 1468)

When the legislature, the first in Wyoming, convened at the capitol, a lady of this city, Mrs. Esther Morris, presented a bill to Mr. Bright, asking the favorable action of the legislature upon that question.[3] The question was considered by the legislature, and whether or not there was some of its members who treated it as a matter of jest, I know not, but that measure was adopted in serious earnestness there is not doubt.

Esther Hobart Morris is credited with convincing William Bright, President of the first Wyoming Territorial Council, to introduce the woman's suffrage bill to the legislature. Morris would later become the first female Justice of the Peace in the nation. (WSA Sub Neg 2666)

Esther Hobart Morris is credited with convincing William Bright, President of the first Wyoming Territorial Council, to introduce the woman’s suffrage bill to the legislature. Morris would later become the first female Justice of the Peace in the nation.
(WSA Sub Neg 2666)

The second legislature of Wyoming convened at the capital and a bill was introduced by a member of that body to repeal the former bill. The question was seriously and earnestly considered in that legislature, and I know the temper of the men who then discussed it, because I was a member of that legislature, and question of woman’s suffrage in that legislature became a political question. It happened that it was presented by a Democrat, some feelings had arisen among the members of the convention and some hostility had grown up  amongst them against the executive of the territory at that time because of certain veto measures; growing out of this feeling the party lash was brought down, and after the bill repealing this law had been passed by a majority of the members of the legislature, the governor vetoed it. It came back for reconsideration and the veto of the governor was sustained, notwithstanding the fact that the party lash was brought down upon the backs of members of that convention who were Democratic in their opinion, and by reason of this party lash many of them were forced to vote against their convictions and give their support to the question of woman’s suffrage in Wyoming.[4]

Hon. Melville C. Brown, member of the 2nd Territorial Legislature and president of the 1889 Wyoming Constitutional Convention. (WSA Sub Neg 1489)

Hon. Melville C. Brown, member of the 2nd Territorial Legislature and president of the 1889 Wyoming Constitutional Convention.
(WSA Sub Neg 1489)

From that day to the present no man in the legislature of Wyoming has been heard to raise his voice against it. It 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 judgment as to raise any question as to the fundamental right guaranteed to any citizen in this territory.[5] 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. If we are at this time to discriminate between men and women as to this elective franchise let us put them upon the same common basis, and let us, if we are to vote as a people upon this question of suffrage, cover the whole ground and not a part of it.”[6]

________________

1. Technically, Wyoming’s women were not the first women in America to vote in a national election. Between 1797 and 1807, the women who owned property in New Jersey were allowed to vote, making them the first women to vote in a nationwide election. Women in other states were not specifically barred from voting by the Constitution, as voting requirements were left up to individual states. In 1807, national voting requirements were clarified to exclude slaves and aliens from voting, changing the language to specify white males over 21 years old. Because of the wording, women were also excluded. Apparently the women of New Jersey did not put up much resistance to the loss of their voting rights. Wyoming’s women were the first to be specifically guaranteed the right to vote and hold public office.

2. Bright was a Territorial Councilman and president of the first Territorial Council (similar to today’s Senate.) He represented Carter County, which was later renamed Sweetwater County.

3. In 1889, Esther Morris was living in Cheyenne as mentioned by Brown, but in 1869, she was a resident of South Pass City, the county seat of Carter County.

4. Interestingly enough, this outcome was correctly and precisely predicted by the Cheyenne Daily Leader which wrote on November 18, 1871: “The repeal of the act granting suffrage to females in Wyoming passed the House yesterday by a strict party vote, ten Democrats to three Republicans. Heretofore this question has not taken the position of a party measure, but now the Democracy are irrevocably recorded as against the measure, whatever merit or demerit may attach to it. The course of the bill is plain. The bill for the repeal having passed the House, we prognosticate as follows, concerning its fate: Its transmission to the Council and passage of the repeal by a vote of five to four; its veto by the Governor; passage over the veto in the House, and a failure in the Council to obtain the requisite two-thirds cote necessary to final passage. This is the probable fate of the present bill, thus leaving female suffrage an established fact in Wyoming.”

5. Native Americans were not granted suffrage until congress passed the Indian Citizen Act of 1924. But since they were not considered citizens of the United States until then, this statement was technically true in 1889.

6. Wyoming Constitutional Convention Proceedings and Debates, 1889, p 352-353.

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Filed under This Day in Wyoming History..., Women's Suffrage