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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.