By the time most American women finally secured their constitutional right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment, most women in Western states had been voting for years, even decades.
The newly formed Western states, unencumbered by the institutions and traditions of the East, and hungry for new settlers, demonstrated a progressivism that led the nation.
Wyoming was a trailblazer, approving women’s suffrage in 1869, a full 51 years before Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 2020, ensuring the right to vote could not be denied anywhere in the United States on the basis of sex.
The rest of the West followed suit: Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, Kansas and Arizona all approved women’s suffrage before the 19th Amendment became law.
So, what drove the West’s permissive-for-their-times voting laws?
The women’s suffrage movement in Western states began at the end of the Civil War, and most Western states are much younger than other parts of the country and therefore more open to new ideas on how to govern, said Jennifer Helton, an assistant professor of history at Ohlone College in Fremont, California. Helton’s research focuses on women's suffrage in Wyoming.
“Because they’re younger and have fewer vested interests, there’s people who are interested in reform and trying new things in different ways,” Helton said. “There’s not as much resistance to it,” Helton said.
Carolyn Brucken, chief curator and director of research at Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, said many men in politics were open to the idea of women’s suffrage because it would help increase their territorial population and with it their representation in the U.S. Congress.
“As (U.S.) territories were becoming states and writing the state constitutions, there was a window of opportunity for debate about who had the right to vote,” Brucken said.
After Wyoming gave women the right to vote in 1869, several other political victories followed: Louisa Swain became the nation’s first woman to vote in Laramie; Esther Hobart Morris was the first woman to hold public office as a justice of the peace in South Pass City; Estelle Reel was the first woman to ever be elected to statewide office, becoming superintendent of public instruction; and Nellie Tayloe Ross became the country’s first woman to serve as governor.
Amalia Post – a businesswoman and wife of a banker – was one of several women who lobbied for women’s suffrage in Wyoming and across the nation. When the Wyoming legislature tried to revoke women’s suffrage in 1871, Post stepped in to encourage Gov. John Allen Campbell to save it.
The origins of the women’s suffrage weren’t all pure. Democrats, who embraced white supremacy during the 19th century, were not happy with the number of women who supported Republicans, said Richard Ewig, former associate director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.
Democrat William Bright believed that if Black men were allowed to vote, women — specifically white women — should be allowed to as well. That's why he introduced the women's suffrage bill in Wyoming, believing women would in return vote Democrat and therefore “ensure white control of the territory,” according to Helton.
Instead, most women voted Republican because it was the party more supportive of women's rights and suffrage.
“Most people are not aware of that,” Ewig said. “So the Democrats were able to pass a bill removing the suffrage law in 1871” which Gov. Campbell, who had signed the bill giving women the right to vote, eventually vetoed.
One result of the suffrage bill, Ewig said, is that women were also allowed to serve on juries. Post was part of the first group of women who served on a jury in Cheyenne in 1871, where she was the first woman to chair a jury.
She wrote letters to her sister in Michigan describing her jury experience: “I was Foreman of the Jury,” she wrote, “& the man was condemned & sentenced to be hung. (W)e found him guilty of murder in the first degree as found in indictment. … There is no fun in sitting on a jury where there is murder cases to be tried. (T)his one that is to be hung killed two,” she wrote, according to the Wyoming State Historical Society.
Post was also involved with the national women’s suffrage movement, becoming the Lifetime Vice President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Helton said.
But while Wyoming bills itself as the “Equality State,” it often excluded women of color from voting and running for office. It wasn't until 1981 that the state elected its first Black woman, Elizabeth Byrd, into office – more than a century after women were granted the right to vote and run for office.
Women of color in the West played a huge role in advocating for suffrage for all women. Brucken said that Black, Latinx and other women of color helped broaden the vision for the women’s suffrage movement by advocating for their communities, regardless of sex.
While there’s evidence that some Black women voted in the 1870 election in Cheyenne, an educational qualification was placed for women’s suffrage during the 1889 constitutional that disenfranchised formerly enslaved Black women and non-English speaking immigrants who had been deprived of formal education, Wyoming Public Media reported.
Still, women in the Western suffrage movement were more diverse than the rest of the nation.
“In a lot of parts of the country, it's really sort of elite upper-class white women, but in the West, you have women suffragists just from all kinds of backgrounds,” Helton said.
In Colorado, where women were granted the right to vote in 1893, Elizabeth Piper Ensley was a Black woman who worked on the state’s successful women’s suffrage referendum that passed in 1893.
Ensley ensured that African American activists were included in the movement, Helton said. She also founded the Colored Women’s Republican Club and the Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which educated Black women on why and how to vote.
Born in Indiana, Noami Bowman Talbert Anderson was a poet and writer who worked with suffragists to campaign for the first woman’s suffrage referendum, according to the Archives of Women’s Political Communication at Iowa State University. She gave speeches and wrote articles on women's rights – advocating for Black women's rights – Christianity and temperance for newspapers in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
In San Francisco, California, Anderson gave a speech in 1896 saying, “Woman’s (sic) suffrage would result in much good to the men as well as to the women, for the black laws on California’s statute books would never be canceled until the women had their rights and cast their votes.”
Anderson also traveled across the Golden State to speak in Black churches and to white audiences, a radical act at the time in California.
In Southern California, Maria de G.E. Lopez was a Latina who led the local College Equal Suffrage League in Los Angeles and gave lectures in Spanish to teach Latinas about the suffrage movement. Many Latinas ran bilingual campaigns for women’s suffrage in the West, according to the National Museum of American History.
California granted women's suffrage in 1911, followed by Oregon in 1912.
In Portland, Oregon, Dr. S. K. Chan was the president of the Chinese American Equal Suffrage Society during the early 1900s when first-generation Chinese immigrants advocated for suffrage for their American-born children.
Even today, the American West is recognized for its successful grassroots movements and persistence to fight for women’s rights across all communities: According to the Center for American Women and Politics, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington lead the nation's top 10 states with the most women serving in state Legislatures, and Nevada made history in 2018 as the first state with a women-majority legislature.
“It points out the importance of local activism and being persistent,” Helton said. “And then it pays off. Sometimes decades later, but it's how change happens.”
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