In 1869, Wyoming’s territorial legislature passed a bill approving women’s suffrage, making the women in Wyoming the first in the United States to have the right to vote. Although debates continue over who should receive the credit, Wyoming’s status as the first territory and state to grant full suffrage for women remains a source of state pride.
Wyoming was organized as a territory of the United States in 1868. When the first territorial legislature met in the capital of Cheyenne in the late 1869, William H. Bright introduced a bill to give women the right to vote in Wyoming. Passed by both chambers of the territorial legislature, the bill proposed: “That every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this territory, may, at every election to be holden under the laws thereof, cast her vote. And her rights to the elective franchise and to hold office shall be the same under the election laws of the territory, as those of electors.” Approved on December 10, 1869, the bill became a law and women in Wyoming became the first in the country to legally have the full right to vote.
When women in Wyoming gained the right to vote in 1869, they did so without an official campaign. Unlike most states, Wyoming did not have a suffrage association or organization prior to the passage of women’s suffrage. Still, the people of Wyoming knew about the idea of women’s suffrage. Female circuit lecturers, such as the nationally acclaimed orator Anna Dickinson, came to Wyoming and spoke on women’s rights and suffrage. Newspapers throughout the territory included news and information about the women’s suffrage movement across the country. Even without an organized women’s suffrage movement in Wyoming, supporters of women’s suffrage helped push the territorial legislature to take action.
It is unsure who was most responsible for the passage of women’s suffrage in Wyoming. Some argue that the legislators like William H. Bright who introduced and passed the bill should be given credit, while others claim that the Wyoming women who supported women’s suffrage had an instrumental role in influencing the legislators. Popular Wyoming history credits Esther Hobart Morris, who became the first woman elected to judicial office in the United States with her appointment as a justice of the peace in 1870, as the “mother of woman suffrage,” but historians debate the extent of her influence. A compromise between these two ideas about who was responsible for the passage of women’s suffrage in Wyoming can be seen in the women’s suffrage commemorative statue in front of the state Capitol Building in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The statue depicts Esther Hobart Morris and the inscription reads: “Esther Hobart Morris: Proponent of the legislative act which in 1869 gave distinction to the territory of Wyoming as the 1st government in the world to grant women equal rights.” Thus, the statue highlights the importance of women like Morris in pushing for women’s suffrage while also acknowledging the role of the territorial legislature both in the inscription and in the placement of the statue in front of the Capitol Building.
Women’s suffrage is an important part of Wyoming’s history and identity. During the process of applying for statehood, Wyoming women successfully demanded that female enfranchisement be officially included in the state constitution. When the United States Congress threatened to withhold statehood from Wyoming because of that clause in the state constitution, the territorial legislators sent a telegram stating that Wyoming would rather remain out of the Union for one hundred years rather than join without women’s suffrage. When Wyoming did gain statehood in 1890, it became the first state where women had the full right to vote. Wyoming’s support of women’s suffrage led to its nicknames as “The Suffrage State” and “The Equality State.” The state’s history of equal suffrage led Wyoming to send a copy of the Esther Morris statue to Washington, D.C., where it is displayed in the National Statuary Hall at the United States Capital. Even though debates continue over which historical individuals deserve credit, Wyoming’s status as the first territory and state in the United States where women had the right to vote remains a source of state pride.