That Time Wyoming Became the First State Allowing Women to Vote But it Wasn’t Cool
The United States welcomed the 44th state to the Union July 10, 1890, more than two decades after the former territory had granted women the vote. Wyoming’s Governor John Campbell had signed the bill into law on December 10, 1969.
To put this in perspective, the United States Constitution didn’t follow suit until 1920, with the passing of the 19th Amendment.
Before anyone gets all teary-eyed about the benevolence of Wyoming’s 19th-century legislators, it helps to know a little more about what pushed this valuable decision ahead of schedule. At the end of the day, it was a good thing, the right thing to do, but why it came to pass is a whole different ball of wax.
What, at first sounds like a forward-thinking move, outpacing other territories, states, even the federal government, the Wyoming suffrage bill was politics, entangled with personal agendas, and a touch of dog-whistle racism.
The State of a Territory
Wyoming was tough in 1869. It was hard out there for a cowboy. In 1869 Wyoming was home to about 7,000 settlers. Of them, 6,000 were cowboys, and only 1,000 were cowgirls.
Many of those cowgirls already had cowboy spouses. In other words, it was lonely. A lot of (need it be said, “straight”) men in Wyoming were desperate for a woman to hold. Giving women the vote would potentially draw women to the state, good for those men, but good for the voting base too.
Men with wives tend to breed baby voters.
Political Climate of 1869
Keep in mind that in the 1800s, much of what we associate with the political agendas of modern Democrats and Republicans were the reverse of today.Don’t forget, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.
There were plenty Democrats opposed to freeing the slaves in the south.In the north even, Dems were the conservative voice that questioned giving freed blacks the vote.
After the war, Democrats like Wyoming’s William Bright opposed full citizenship and the right to vote for freed blacks. We’ll come back to Bright in a second.
It was the Republican-controlled Congress that passed the 14th and 15th Amendments, granting those very rights. Democrats at the state-level aimed to repeal those Amendments or pass bills to undermine their power.
With his wife, Julia, William Bright moved to Salt Lake City after the Civil War to mine gold. He made good money in the mines, eventually moving to South Pass, Wyoming.
There, he volunteered to chair a Democratic meeting where local Dems discussed what to do with the radical Republicans in Congress. They weren’t yet a state, but they knew they needed to organize to stay ahead of those liberal Republicans.
In May 1868, Bright traveled to and participated in the Democratic National Convention, representing the territory of Wyoming. He still wasn’t a politician, but the future seemed clear. He would be in time.
After Bright sold most of his mines, he reinvested in a saloon in South Pass, Wyoming, where he developed a well-regarded reputation amongst locals. In general, people liked Bright.
President Ulysses S. Grant, in the autumn of 1868, appointed a Republican delegation to run the Wyoming territory. Grant was, after all, a Republican. He put John Campbell was at the helm as the Governor.
After the Republicans organized a vote to elect Wyoming’s first legislature, the results shocked them. It seemed the organization of the Democratic committee had worked. The good people of Wyoming elected only Democrats, 22 members, and a Democratic congressman. Willam Bright was amongst the 22.
Of course, the Democrats had their eyes on all those women who would move to Wyoming and vote for them if they could only get a bill through.
The plan was to put the Governor on the hot seat with a bill he couldn’t refuse. Since it was his party that allowed the blacks to vote, he wouldn’t be able to back down when presented with giving the right to women.
It was a subtle attempt to embarrass Campbell. The Dems figured, and often spoke in public about it, that if Blacks and Chinese had the right to vote, then so would women.
They weren’t joking. They wanted to force the Republicans to put their money where their mouths were, but below it ran a river of racially-charged resentment.
“Damn it,” one unnamed legislator in a Cheyenne newspaper, “if you are going to let the n***ers and the pigtails [Chinese] vote, we will ring in the women, too.”
A Bright Bill
First, it passed the council of Democrats, for which Bright was still the chair. After amending the bill to make it so women had to be age 21, the House passed Bright’s Bill, landing it on Governor Campbell’s desk.
Campbell had the right to veto it, but by December 10, 1869, he’d signed the bill into law.
By 1870, Women flocked to the voting booths like geese. Turnouts were around 1,000 women. For better or worse, Wyoming was the most forward-thinking territory in the Union.
Campbell would get his chance to veto again when, in 1871, he vetoed a new bill designed to repeal women’s vote. Apparently, someone had second thoughts. (Ahem, Dems…)
Bright maintained that he pushed for the bill because he believed his wife was as capable of making an educated vote as any man. He declined his racist perceptions until the end.
In the long run, women retained the vote in Wyoming. Other states followed, but not before Wyoming joined the United States on July 10, 1890, as the first state with women voters.