First Land of the Free?
Wyoming: An Unsung Champion of The Women’s Suffrage Movement
By Tanner Probst
Although we often think of the drive for equality as a phenomenon of the liberal East Coast, the American West led the way in the battle for women’s right to vote. The monumental passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 mandated “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” However, many western states had already granted women suffrage. Although the territory of Wyoming was not yet a state, it was trending toward full women’s suffrage well before 1920. On December 10th, 1869, both houses of Wyoming’s exclusively male legislature signed a bill granting suffrage to all women over the age of 21 in addition to the rights to run for public office and sit on juries. Women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony declared, “Wyoming is the first place on God’s green earth which could consistently claim to be the land of the free!” This bill sparked others to follow; within a few years, Utah, Washington, and Montana had all signed similar bills into law.
When Wyoming sought statehood in 1889, they took a stand on women’s rights. Congress threatened to prevent them from joining the Union if they didn’t abolish women's suffrage. Their response? “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.” Congress blinked, and Wyoming, as the 44th state to join the Union, was the first to give women the right to vote.
Their call of Congress’s bluff empowered other states to follow (the aforementioned states were still territories at the time). In 1893, Colorado granted women’s suffrage. In 1896, Idaho and Utah. Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and the territory of Alaska followed soon after. Interestingly, Montana elected a woman, Jeannette Ranking, to the House of Representatives in 1916 before the 19th Amendment was passed.
Wyoming was not technically the first state to allow women to vote. Following the Revolutionary War, New Jersey declared in its constitution, “All inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly; and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.” This was solidified with language referring to voters as “he or she” in the document. However, married women were still prevented from voting due to coverture (a legal fiction transferring a wife’s rights to her husband). Worse, the “he or she” references were struck in 1807 and changed to “free, white, male, citizens.” Women in New Jersey would not receive full suffrage again until the 19th Amendment. Wyoming may not have been the first state to give women the right to vote, but it was the first to stand by its decision.
Map of Women’s suffrage in 1919, prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. From the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection.
Wyoming’s early stand for women’s rights helped empower other states to follow and lent credibility to the women’s suffrage movement centered until then on the East Coast. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Wyoming continued to lead the push for women’s rights and equal status. In 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected governor, becoming the first female governor in the United States. While often overlooked by the larger states, the country’s least populated state had an outsized effect on women’s empowerment and has earned their nickname of the “Equality State” and motto of “Equal Rights.”
Tanner Probst is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He serves in an academic-based community service class under Professor Lorene Cary, helping to share stories promoting civil engagement while working with the youth voter registration initiative Vote That Jawn.