Women's Suffrage: The First Victory (1869)

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
Negro Suffrage as a Political Necessity
Politics After the War

The First Victory (1869)

In the midst of the baffling discouragement politics had wrought, a tiny flickering star of victory arose in the great mysterious West. So unimportant did it seem at the time that the Revolution gave but three lines to the announcement, and that in an inconspicuous corner. The map of the United States of America as represented in the geographies used in the public schools of the day denoted most of the territory lying between Nebraska and the Rockies as the Great American Desert. Out of this vastness the federal government had carved a section large enough to accommodate an empire and called it Wyoming. A sparse and shifting population of adventurous men, sometimes with families, was scattered along the trails which led from Council Bluffs to Oregon or California. The Union Pacific Railroad was completed half-way across Wyoming in 1867, and a City of Tents sprang up as if by magic at the last stop, called Cheyenne. Thousands of men poured in where dozens had been before, trappers, hunters, miners, prospectors, but all seekers of adventure. Saloons, dance halls, houses of prostitution, always numerous in frontier settlements, increased to such an extent that crime became rampant. Neither life nor property was respected, and robberies, hold-ups and murders were every day occurrences.

The better element petitioned the Congress for the protection of an organized government. The Congress immediately granted the request by a bill providing for a territorial government and President Johnson signed the bill. The conflict between the President and Congress was then at the climax of its bitterness and Congress refused to confirm the President's appointees for the new territorial administration. The Wyoming government, therefore, was not organized until May, 1869, when appointees of President Grant took charge. During the two intervening years lawlessness had grown even more audacious and the town of Laramie, established as another outpost on the Union Pacific, was duplicating the experiences of Cheyenne.

The first election took place in September, 1869, its purpose being the choice of delegates to the first Legislature. At South Pass City, the largest town in the State, a settlement consisting of rows of shacks stretching along a ledge of the Wind River Mountains, the call for an election found 3,000 persons washing gold and dreaming of fortune. The “blue and the gray,“ the loyalist and the copperhead, with bygones laid aside, were amicably following the common lure of gold. Politics offered an acceptable diversion and they promptly fell in line as Republicans and Democrats, each group prepared to nominate candidates and defend them to the death.

At this point, twenty of the most influential men in the community, including all the candidates of both parties, were invited to dinner at the “shack of Mrs. Esther Morris, who had followed her husband and three sons into the trackless West.“ She was a newcomer with a complete understanding of the Eastern political treatment of Negro and woman suffrage. In her ears were still ringing the words of Susan B. Anthony, one of whose public lectures she had heard just before setting out upon her Western journey. To her guests she now presented the woman's case with such clarity and persuasion that each candidate gave her his solemn pledge that if elected he would introduce and support a woman suffrage bill. The election resulted in the choice of Wm. H. Bright, Democrat, who was elected president of the Council when the Legislature met, October 1, 1869. Many years after, in order that justice should be done the memory of Mrs. Morris, Captain Nickerson, the Republican candidate defeated in 1869 but elected in 1871, wrote the story, giving entire credit to Mrs. Morris for the act of the Territory, and filed his documentary evidence at the County Seat of Sweetwater County.

The Wyoming September election reflected the hostility to Negro suffrage common in the country and was conducted in a manner to be expected of a turbulent population but recently brought under the discipline of law. In the words of Hon. J. W. Kingman, associate justice in the territory: “There was a good deal of party feeling developed, and election day witnessed a sharp and vigorous struggle. The candidates and their friends spent money freely, and every liquor shop was thrown open to all who would drink. Peaceful people did not dare to walk the streets in some of the towns during the latter part of the day and evening. At South Pass City, some drunken fellows with large knives and loaded revolvers swaggered around the polls, and swore that no Negro should vote. When one man remarked quietly that he thought the Negroes had as good a right to vote as any of them had, he was immediately knocked down, jumped on, kicked and pounded without mercy and would have been killed had not his friends rushed into the brutal crowd and dragged him out, bloody and insensible. There were quite a number of colored men who wanted to vote,[1]* but did not dare approach the polls until the United States Marshal, himself at their head and with revolver in hand, escorted them through the crowd, saying he would shoot the first man that interfered with them. There was much quarreling and tumult, but the Negroes voted. This was only a sample of the day's doings and was characteristic of the election all over the territory. The result was that every Republican was defeated and every Democratic candidate elected.“

Mr. Bright, the newly elected president of the Council, was described by those who knew him as “a man of much energy and good natural endowments but without much school education.“ His wife was reported to be a woman of unusual attainments and Mrs. Morris completely converted them both to woman suffrage. Mr. Bright is quoted by ex-Governor Hoyt as saying to his wife: “Betty, it's a shame that I should be a member of the Legislature and make laws for such a woman as you. You are a great deal better than I am; you know a great deal more and you would make a better member of the Assembly than I. I have made up my mind that I will do everything in my power to give you the ballot.“

Arrived at Cheyenne, Mr. Bright set himself to the task of converting to woman suffrage the twenty-two men who composed the two Houses of the Legislature. He reminded his fellow members that the Legislature was unanimously Democratic and that, should it vote suffrage to women, it would show the world that Democrats were more liberal than Republicans who confined their extensions of the vote to Negroes; and that, should the Republican Governor veto the bill, it would give the Democrats a decided advantage. With all he argued the justice of the cause and pointed out that such an act would advertise the territory as nothing else could. Meanwhile, men and women in different parts of the territory wrote their delegates, urging support of the bill. On the 27th of November, Mr. Bright, having secured the necessary number of pledges, introduced the suffrage bill. The Council (territorial Senate) without discussion passed the measure by a vote of ayes 6, nays 2, absent 1. In the House, the bill found an opponent as determined as was Mr. Bright-Mr. Ben Sheeks. A lively and acrimonious debate followed, and many amendments designed to kill the bill were introduced and voted down, one being that the word “woman“ be stricken out, and the words, “all colored women and squaws, be substituted.“ The original bill named eighteen years as the qualified age of the woman voter. A proposal to substitute twenty-one for eighteen was the only change made, and thus amended the bill passed, ayes 6, nays 4, absent 1, the Council concurring.

Several of those who had voted for the bill, smarting under the gibes of outsiders who looked upon suffrage for women as wholly ridiculous, soon regretted having done so. Friends and foes alike turned to John W. Campbell, the unmarried Republican Governor, and pleaded with him, some to sign, some to veto the bill. Women also called upon him, pleading for his signature to the bill. His interviewers found him vacillating and doubtful as to his duty. The determining factor proved to be a memory rising in the background of his mind, and growing each hour more vivid and persistent. In that memory he saw himself and other young boys, nineteen years before, acting under the impulse of curiosity tempered with mischief, stealing into the back seats of the Second Baptist Church in Salem, Ohio, his birthplace. The attraction was a Woman's Rights Convention which the entire village agreed was an unheard of innovation, a few of the elders defending it, but more condemning it. The convention was the first in the State and differed in one respect from others at that period. It was entirely officered by women and “not a man was allowed to sit on the platform, speak or vote.“ The women issued an “address to Ohio women,“ a “memorial to the State Constitutional Convention“ about to sit, and passed 22 resolutions, “covering the whole range of woman's political, religious, civil and social rights.“ Although greetings of encouragement were received from many of the chief leaders of the movement, the convention speakers were all Ohio women. When it was over, the men who had been in attendance met together and “endorsed all the ladies had said and done.“

An episode so remarkable had not failed to make its impression upon the boy, although in the intervening years no occasion had arisen to transform the impression into conviction. Now the boy, grown to man, heard the voices once more, listened again to the arguments and knew no answer to their appeal. With his mind made up, in the words of ex-Governor Hoyt, “he saw that it was a long deferred justice and so signed the bill as gladly as Abraham Lincoln wrote his name to the Proclamation of Emancipation of the slaves.“

“Of course,“ continues Mr. Hoyt, “the women were astounded! If a whole troop of angels had come down with flaming swords for their vindication, they would not have been much more astonished than they were when that bill became a law and the women of Wyoming were thus clothed with the habiliments of citizenship.“

The two years which intervened before the next legislative election were eventful ones to the woman's cause in the territory. Soon after the passage of the bill, Mrs. Esther Morris was surprised by an appointment as Justice of the Peace at South Pass City. Owing to the fact that the population was sparse and regular courts were not yet numerous, a Justice of the Peace was an important officer and frequently heard types of cases which in after years went to other courts.

The rowdies of the place undertook to intimidate Mrs. Morris and thus force her resignation-and incidentally prove that women were unequal to the performance of political duties-but they retired humiliated and discomfited from the contest. Nearly forty cases were brought before her and so justly did she administer them that not one was appealed to a higher Court. Justice Morris and her court at South Pass City aroused widespread comment throughout the nation, the reports being both true and false, favorable and unfavorable.

At the first term of the District Court held after the first Legislature women as well as men were drawn for grand and petit jurors. The enemies of woman suffrage had caused this action, intending thereby to make the whole cause of women in politics so obnoxious to the public that it would prepare the way for a repeal of the woman suffrage measure at the next Legislature. On the contrary, the woman jurors were continually complimented and praised by judges and press.

“The first mixed Grand Jury was in session for three weeks during which time bills were brought for consideration of several murder cases, cattle and horse stealing and illegal branding, all of the bills strangely commencing, 'We, good and lawful male and female jurors, on oath do say.'“[2]* When Justice Howe addressed this jury, and incidentally a packed court room, he assured the women that there was not only no impropriety in their serving as jurors but that their service was needed in the effort to secure a law-abiding community. Said he: “You shall not be driven by the sneers, jeers and insults of a laughing crowd from the temple of justice as your sisters have been from some of the medical colleges of the land.“

When the Grand Jury was discharged, Judge Howe complimented the women upon “the service rendered during this first term of the territorial court,“ saying that women would make just as good jurors as men, if not a great deal better.

A petit jury soon thereafter tried a murder case, the indictment having been brought in by the Grand Jury. Six women and six men composed it. When the case was referred to the jury, it was unable to come to a decision and the members, as is customary, were locked up. This was the possibility that had done duty in all lands as a decisive reason why women should never serve as jurors. The Sheriff of Albany County, Wyoming, solved the problem easily enough upon this first occasion. The jury was retired in two rooms at the chief hotel; a man bailiff was placed on guard at the door of the men's room, and a woman bailiff at the door of the women's room. There was still another incident new in the history of juries. While the men, in the effort to while away a few weary hours, were engaged in playing cards, smoking and drinking beer, their attention was arrested by the notes of a hymn coming from the women jurors' room and easily heard through the thin walls. Presently they heard the minister's wife ask the jurors to kneel with her in prayer “while she asked the Highest Court to give them guidance in arriving at a just verdict.“

For two and a half days and nights the jury labored to reach a decision. Fifty years after, when the secrets of that jury's action could be told, it was learned that the six women voted from the first for conviction, and that the delay was occasioned by three men who voted for acquittal. The verdict was manslaughter and was signed with a pen fashioned from an eagle's quill.

The news of these women jurors spread far and wide. “King William of Prussia sent a congratulatory cable to President Grant upon this evidence of progress, enlightenment and civil liberty in America.“[3]*

While arousing much discussion and winning approval among the law-abiding, women jurors were less popular among other classes, as was evidenced in the second Legislature. The Legislature of 1871 contained a minority of Republicans. Nine days after the Legislature convened, a bill to repeal woman suffrage was introduced. The leader of the suffrage opposition in 1869, Ben Sheeks, was the only man in either house who had been returned, and he was elected as Speaker of the House. He devoted his entire attention to the repeal bill which passed the following day, ayes 9, nays 3, absent 1, every vote for repeal being Democratic and every vote against being Republican. On November 28, the bill passed the Council by a vote of ayes 5, all Democratic, and nays 4, all Republican. Governor Campbell (Republican) promptly vetoed the bill, saying in his message that “to repeal it at that time would advertise to the world that women in their use of enfranchisement had not justified the acts of the members of the previous session and that such an imputation would be false and untenable.“ The House passed the repeal over the Governor's veto by the required two-thirds vote, ayes 9 (Democrats), nays-2 (Republican), with two absentees who had paired their votes. In the Council the repeal did not secure a two-thirds vote, ayes 5 (Democratic), nays 4 (Republican). Thus woman suffrage was preserved by a single vote, for had one Republican deserted and voted with the Democrats, the two-thirds vote for repeal would have been secured. No effort was ever again made to repeal woman suffrage in Wyoming.

Twenty years after (1889), a constitutional convention met in September to frame a constitution preparatory to statehood. In the preceding June, a woman's convention had been called and a hundred of the most prominent women of the Territory had attended it. The purpose of the convention had been carried out in the adoption of the following resolution: “Resolved, That we demand of the constitutional convention that woman suffrage be affirmed in the State constitution.“

Not a single delegate in the constitutional convention opposed woman suffrage, but one delegate proposed that the question be submitted to the people separately from the constitution, as it was likely to prove difficult for the state to get into the Union with woman suffrage in the constitution. The proposal brought out a staunch and unyielding protest and the woman suffrage clause was included in the constitution.

The Committee on Territories in the House of Representatives recommended the admission of Wyoming, but William M. Springer, Democrat, of Illinois brought in a minority report “consisting of twenty-three pages, twenty-one devoted to objections because of the woman suffrage article.“[4]*

The Territory was Republican and would send two Republicans to the Senate. The battle fiercely waged against its admission as a State was therefore led and chiefly supported by Democrats, woman suffrage furnishing a convenient excuse for opposition. The ghosts of reconstruction came forth from their hiding places and stalked the aisles of the United States Senate and House once more, off and on making their presence known whenever the bill came up during a period of six months. Lengthy speeches by representatives from Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and Texas, vituperative and ignorantly hostile, marked the opposition. “Woman suffrage will result in unsexing womanhood.“ “It is a reform against nature.“ “Let her stay in the sphere to which God and the Bible have assigned her.“ “They are going to make men of women, and the correlative must take place that men become women.“ During the debate, when it seemed impossible that Congress would consent to the admission of Wyoming with woman suffrage in its constitution, Delegate James Carey telegraphed the Wyoming Legislature then in session and asked advice. The answer came back: “We will remain out of the Union a hundred years rather than come in without woman suffrage.“ This staunch response stiffened the faith of the friends and won votes of Republicans who were not yet ready to approve of woman suffrage. The bill of admission passed the House March 28, 1890, by a vote of 139 ayes to 127 nays.

The procedure was repeated in the Senate, action being postponed several times. The effort to amend by striking out woman suffrage having failed there also, the bill of admission was passed June 27, 1890, by 29 ayes, 18 nays, 37 absent.

In the Congress Republicans opposed to woman suffrage had held quite unitedly that the State should have the right to decide who should vote within it. The Democrats, always contending that suffrage was a matter for the consideration of States, now refused to accept the principle and demanded a federal veto on state action. The Bill passed by a party vote, Republicans voting for admission and Democrats against.

From the year 1869, every Governor, Chief Justice and many prominent citizens of Wyoming have given endorsements of the beneficence of woman suffrage. “Not one reputable person in the State said over his or her own signature that woman suffrage is other than an unimpeachable success in Wyoming.“[5]* At one time, suffragists in the East were dismayed because Boston papers carried an interview with a “Prominent Gentleman from Wyoming“ who declared that all the beliefs of the opponents of woman suffrage had proved true in that State. A telegram to the Mayor of Cheyenne asking for particulars concerning this “prominent gentleman“ brought back the quick response, “A horse thief convicted by a jury half of whom were women.“

For fifty years Wyoming served as the leaven which lightened the prejudices of the entire world. She pronounced false every prediction of anti-suffragists and gave so much evidence of positive good to the community arising from the votes of women that she became the direct cause of the establishment of woman suffrage in all the surrounding States. Amid the gibes and the jests, the ridicule and the ribaldry, Wyoming stood fast through the generations, until the nation acknowledged that she was right and stood with her.


* The Fifteenth Amendment had been submitted in February, 1869, and although not yet ratified Negroes had the right to vote under the law granting Negro suffrage in territories to be organized.


* “The First Woman Jury,“ Grace Raymond Hebard,Journal American History, 1913, No. 4.


* “The First Woman Jury,“ Grace Raymond Hebard,Journal American History, 1913, No. 4.


* “History of Woman Suffrage,“ Volume 4, page 998.


* “History of Woman Suffrage,“ Volume 4, page 1005.

Sources +