Women of the West (or the Better Half!) By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
February 8, 2013
Wyoming was the first territory to pass a women’s suffrage law in 1869. It was intended only as a public relations gesture, and was expected to add no more than 1000 active voters to the electorate. In addition to allowing women to vote, it gave them the right to hold office. Most men assumed the ladies would choose to stay home “where they belonged”. The newly allowed voters however, had other ideas. They promptly demanded more active roles for women in government. This so unnerved the all male legislature, that in 1871, it tried, and failed by one vote, to repeal the suffrage bill. The first woman office holder was the territory’s most renowned suffragist, Esther Morris. Despite any legal training she was appointed justice of the peace for South Pass City, where she ran her court with an iron hand, and never had a decision reversed by a higher court. At the same time, other women were pioneering as members of juries in Laramie and Cheyenne. Despite a healthy dose of ridicule from cartoonists, the women took their new duties seriously, such as in a Laramie murder case. The jury of 6 women and 6 men were locked up for two and a half days trying to reach a verdict. The men, three of which favored acquittal, played cards, smoked, and drank beer in one room, while the women who were unanimously for conviction sang hymns and prayed next door. The only way they could break the impasse was a compromise verdict, guilty on a lesser charge of manslaughter. Through Wyoming’s much publicized example, women from all over were emboldened to seek the same rights. By 1896, women had won the vote in Utah, Colorado, and Idaho and had begun to play a major role in politics all across the west. Iowa women received the right to vote in 1920 after Tennessee became the 36th state necessary to ratify Congress’s amendment o the Constitution allowing the woman’s vote. Before that, Iowa women had been allowed to vote in certain cases, usually a “yes” or “no” issue (such as to build a new library, etc.) but they could not vote for a candidate.
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