Right Choice, Wrong Reasons
Wyoming Women Win the Right to Vote
By TOM REA
Thanks to an uneducated Virginian who had no use for black people, Wyoming Territory became the first government in the world to guarantee women the right to vote. The man couldn’t have done such a thing by himself, of course. First, a bill had to be introduced at the territorial legislature where the laws were made. Then more than half the legislators had to vote for it, and the governor had to sign it. This meant that lots of people, all of them men, had to be persuaded that votes for women were a good idea. How such a thing came about in Wyoming makes for a pretty interesting story.
The most interesting of all those men may have been the one who introduced the bill. He was a saloonkeeper from South Pass City, a frontier mining town nearly as big as Cheyenne at the time. Big changes in the world sometimes come from places you’d never expect.
William Bright (right) never went to school. Somewhere along the way, he learned to read, write, and do math, though when he was an adult he could never remember quite where or when that was. He grew up in Virginia, a southern state, but served in the Union Army all through the Civil War. After the war, he and his wife, Julia, 21 years younger than he was and by all reports quite beautiful, moved to Salt Lake City. Then gold was discovered near where the old Oregon Trail crossed South Pass, and a gold rush started. William Bright moved to South Pass City in the summer of 1867, hoping, like everyone else in town, to strike it rich.
He staked a lot of mining claims, and then made good money selling the claims as more and more miners poured in. In the spring of 1868, Julia Bright and their new baby moved up from Salt Lake City to join him.
That was a presidential election year, and William Bright was a Democrat. During the Civil War, Democrats in the North were unsure all the killing was worth it. Many would have preferred some kind of compromise with the South instead of pursuing the fight to the bloody end. After the war, Democrats continued to oppose some of the most important changes the war had brought about. In particular, they opposed full citizenship and voting rights for black people—both the recently freed slaves and northern blacks who had been more or less free already.
Congress, controlled by the Republicans, soon passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution. The Fourteenth guaranteed that the former slaves would be citizens, protected by the law like anyone else. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed that no people could be denied the right to vote based on their color, or on the fact that they had once been slaves. These two amendments were soon ratified—that is, approved by the states—and became law.
In May 1868, Democrats in South Pass City (below, in 1870) called a meeting to choose a person to travel to the national Democratic Convention, where the party would choose its candidate for president. William Bright was one of 17 men who signed a notice in the newspaper calling people to come to the meeting. Only strong Democrats should attend, the notice warned—men who opposed votes for black people and opposed the so-called Radical Republicans who were running Congress. Bright chaired the meeting. That fact gives us a glimpse of his political feelings, and probably his racial ones.
The next year, Bright opened a saloon on South Pass City’s busiest corner. By then, the mines were playing out and the town was shrinking. Bright must have known this, and might have guessed a saloon would not have a prosperous future in a shrinking town. But running a saloon was a way to get well known in a community made up almost entirely of miners without wives or families. Being well known helps a lot when a person runs for office. Maybe Bright was thinking of going into politics.
In the fall of 1868, the popular Union Army general Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was elected president. Not surprisingly, Grant appointed Republicans to run the brand-new Wyoming Territory. These included the governor, John Campbell. Campbell’s second in command, Secretary Edwin Lee, and Attorney General Joseph A. Carey, the top government lawyer in the state. They arrived in May 1869. Not long after Carey arrived, he issued an official legal opinion that no one in Wyoming could be denied the right to vote based on race.
A territory-wide election was held in early September. Many Democrats saw Attorney General Carey’s legal opinion as a move to make sure Wyoming’s black people voted Republican, and they were probably right. But to the Republican Governor Campbell’s surprise and embarrassment, only Democrats were elected. The territory’s new delegate to Congress was a Democrat, and all 22 members of the new territorial legislature were Democrats, too. It was a clean sweep.
One of these was William Bright. The South Pass City saloonkeeper won a seat in the Council, or upper house of the Legislature—essentially a senate. He must have been well liked, because the other councilors elected him president of the Council. That meant he would get to run the meetings, and decide which bills got voted on, and when.
The Legislature met in October in Cheyenne. All those Democrats seem to have had it on their mind not to protect black people’s rights, as the Republicans said they wanted to do, but to protect women’s rights. They passed a resolution allowing women to sit inside the special space where the lawmakers sat [Larson, p. 78]. They passed a law guaranteeing that teachers—most of whom were women—would be paid the same whether they were men or women. And they passed a bill guaranteeing married women property rights separate from their husbands.
(Wyoming's Territorial Legislature met for many years at the Rollins House hotel in Cheyenne, shown left in 1869.)
The idea that women deserved the same rights as men had been growing steadily in the United States since the 1840s. For a long time, many of the same people who supported the abolition of slavery also supported women’s rights. Both feelings were strong in the Republican Party before the Civil War. But after the war, Republicans felt they had to do all they could to make sure the freed slaves got the right to vote, and got to keep it once they got it. They put women’s rights on the back burner. Some women were furious about this, and felt betrayed by the Republicans.
In 1854, the legislature in Washington Territory tried and failed to give women the right to vote. Nebraska Territory tried and failed in 1856. In Congress after the Civil War, a senator introduced a bill to give women in all the territories the right to vote. This failed, too, as did bills in 1868 that would have amended the Constitution to give all U.S. women the right to vote. Early in 1869, Dakota Territory came within one vote of passing a so-called woman suffrage bill. So the idea was not new in American politics. Many of Wyoming’s legislators came from states or territories where the question had been discussed often.
Maybe it’s not so surprising, then, that William Bright, fairly late in the legislative session, introduced a bill to give Wyoming women the right to vote. Unfortunately, no record was kept then (or now) of what Wyoming lawmakers actually said while they were debating bills. From newspaper articles at the time and from people’s memories years later, we still can guess what was on Bright’s mind, and on the other legislators’ minds.
(Right, women vote in Cheyenne in 1888. The steeple of the Union Pacific depot is visible in the background.)
First, they wanted to get Wyoming some good publicity, so that more people would come here to live. With the railroad built, and the gold mines at South Pass producing less and less gold, it seemed as though more people were leaving than coming in. Positive news stories around the nation might change that.
The lawmakers especially hoped the news would bring more women. There were six adult men in the Territory for every adult woman, and there were very few children. (Indians were not counted in these numbers, but black people, and Chinese workers, most of whom had come to work on the railroad, were counted.)
Second, these Democrats in the legislature hoped that once these women came to Wyoming, they would continue to vote for the party that had given them the vote in the first place.
Third, they wanted to make John Campbell, the Republican governor, look bad. If they passed the bill, many assumed, Campbell would veto it. Here he was, member of the party that supposedly championed the voting rights of the ex-slaves, but given a chance to extend the vote to women he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to do it. The idea was too new, too different. The Democrats enjoyed the idea of embarrassing him.
Fourth, in a back-door, around-the-barn kind of reasoning, many of the legislators felt strongly that if blacks and Chinese were to have the vote, then women, especially white women, should have it, too. The following spring, a Cheyenne newspaper remembered this as “the clincher” argument. “Damn it,” an unnamed legislator supposedly said, “if you are going to let the niggers and the pigtails [the Chinese] vote, we will ring in the women, too.” (Cheyenne Leader, April 28, 1870. Cited in Fleming, 59.)
William Bright, uneducated saloonkeeper, stalwart Democrat, ex-Virginian, Union Army veteran, president of the Council, and the man who had introduced the bill to give women the vote, was one of the main backers of this argument. Some stories attribute it to his young and supposedly beautiful wife, Julia Bright.
Stories also circulated in later years that the whole thing had been a joke, that the lawmakers were mostly kidding and the bill went farther than anyone had expected. That may be partly, or slightly true, but it goes against the fact that the legislators spent a great deal of time debating the issue—hardly something they would have done if they hadn’t taken it seriously.
And finally, some lawmakers wanted to give the vote to women simply because it was the right thing to do. Bright was among this number, as well.
The bill passed the Council, where Bright had first introduced it, six votes to two. In the House, lawmakers tried and failed to attach various amendments. Some of these were an attempt to make the bill so unattractive to the other legislators that it would fail. One amendment would have extended the vote to “all colored women and squaws.” That amendment failed. The House did pass an amendment to raise the voting age for women from 18 to 21. The House then passed the woman suffrage bill seven votes to four, with one legislator abstaining. Governor Campbell took several days deciding what to do, and finally signed the bill into law December 10, 1869.
Later that month, back in South Pass City, Bright welcomed a couple of visitors into his home. These were Robert Morris, and his mother, Esther Hobart Morris (left). Robert Morris later wrote a letter about the visit to The Revolution, a national magazine that championed women’s rights. Bright was glad to see the Morrises, Robert Morris wrote, as they had come to congratulate him and were among a very few people in South Pass City who approved votes for women.
Early in 1870, Esther Morris was appointed justice of the peace, a kind of judge, becoming the first woman ever to hold a public office. In the spring of 1870, women served on juries in Laramie, and the following September, they finally got a chance to vote throughout the territory in Wyoming Territory’s second election. As many as 1,000 of them appear to have gone to the polls. To the disgust of the Democrats who’d given them the vote, a great many voted Republican. A Republican was elected territorial representative to Congress. And the following year, 1871, a few Republicans were elected to the legislature.
The new legislature decided votes for women weren’t such a good idea after all, and passed a bill to repeal the 1869 law. To his credit, Governor Campbell vetoed the repeal. The House came up with the two-thirds vote necessary to override his veto, but the Council fell one vote short. That left the new law standing, and it was never challenged again. It would be fifty years more before all women in the United States won the right to vote.
Meanwhile, Bright’s saloon went bankrupt, and he and his family moved to Denver. A long time later, in 1902, he was noticed among the audience at a national convention on women’s rights. Asked to speak about what had happened in Wyoming, he stood up and said the bill was not introduced “in fun.” He added he supported the idea because he believed “his wife was as good as any man and better than convicts and idiots,” the Women’s Tribune reported. If he mentioned black people at this point, or used a blunter term, the paper did not repeat it. [Fleming, 61]
Perhaps the whole story of Wyoming’s choice to give women the vote shows that the right thing sometime happens for a large, strange mix of reasons, many of them wrong. Or as Robert Morris wrote to The Revolution, after his and Esther’s visit to William Bright, “It is a fact that all great reforms take place, not where they are most needed, but in places where opposition is weakest; and then they spread …” [Cited in Massie, p. 11]
For a real feel for the hit-and-miss politics of Wyoming Territory, read the newspapers that were being published at the time. The Cheyenne Leader, for example, starting in 1867, is available on microfilm at the Wyoming State Library in Cheyenne, the University of Wyoming library, and the Casper College Library. And the Sweetwater Mines and the Frontier Index (see the Scharff citation, below) are on microfilm at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library. Sometimes these microfilms can be lent out to other libraries on interlibrary loan. Talk to your local librarian for more info.
Ewig, Rick. “Did She Do That?: Examining Esther Morris’ Role in the Passage of the Suffrage Act.” Annals of Wyoming 78:1 (Winter 2006), 28-34. The story that Esther Hobart Morris gave a tea party in South Pass City before the 1869 election to extract a promise from Bright and his Republican opponent, Herman Nickerson, that whichever was elected would introduce a woman suffrage bill, was invented by Nickerson in 1919. Ewig examines the story’s roots and its remarkable staying power.
Fleming, Sidney Howell. “Solving the Jigsaw Puzzle: One Suffrage Story at a Time.” Annals of Wyoming, (Spring, 1990) pp. 22-65. Particularly good at placing events in Wyoming in the context of larger movements for women’s rights in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Scharff, Virginia. "Empire, Liberty, Legend: Woman Suffrage in Wyoming," in Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Chapter 3, pp. 67-92. Woman suffrage in Wyoming in the context of racist strains in the national woman-suffrage movement of the time and of Territorial race relations as white people arrived in the West. Especially revealing is the coverage of these matters in the Sweetwater Mines, the South Pass City paper, and the Frontier Index, the paper published at the end of tracks as Union Pacific construction moved west.
Larson, T.A., History of Wyoming. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. 79-94. This is some of Larson’s best work, especially his modest debunking of the Esther Hobart Morris myth.
_________. “Petticoats at the Polls: Woman Suffrage in Territorial Wyoming.” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 44:2, (April 1953) pp.74-79.
Massie, Michael A. “Reform is Where You Find It: The Roots of Woman Suffrage in Wyoming.” Annals of Wyoming, Spring 1990. This article is also available online. It’s especially good on William Bright, South Pass City, the roots of the Esther Morris tea-party story, and the personalities and politics leading to the bill’s passage.
For more detail on national politics during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, including a video and a photo gallery, History.com's Grant profile.
See Lynne Cheney’s good article on woman suffrage in Wyoming from the April 1973 American Heritage.
Don’t miss South Pass City, where William Bright ran his saloon on the town’s busiest corner. South Pass City is now a well-developed state historical site.
Photographs of William Bright and the other members of the first Territorial Legislature of Wyoming may be seen at the State Capitol in Cheyenne. Ask the person at the desk under the rotunda for help finding them.
Also at the Capitol, check out the statue of Esther Hobart Morris (right) in front of the building, and compare it with her photo, above. This statue and one just like it in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington went up in 1960. But be careful, the U.S. Capitol site passes on the tea-party story about Morris (see the Rick Ewig citation, above, under Secondary Sources) as though it were fact.
An interesting project
would be to find all sites on the Internet that pass on the tea party story about Esther Hobart Morris (starting with Wikipedia), contact the sites, inform them of Ewig's, Massie's, Fleming's and Larson's articles, and get the sites to tell the story right.
The photos of South Pass City (1870) and the Rollins House hotel in Cheyenne (1869), where the legislature passed the bill giving women the right to vote, were both taken by the pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson. Hundreds of his photos may be found at the U.S. Geological Survey’s photo library. Click on “Pioneer Photographers," or use the Key Word Search, and enter Jackson's name, a place or subject, a year, etc., in the different windows. These photos may be downloaded for free and used for any purpose.