Right to Vote -- Wyoming and Women Discussion (May 1998)

[Cross-post from H-West, plus H-Women responses]

Query From Lou Ann Everett laeveret@ednet10.net 25 May 1998

I need where to find documentation on why Wyoming granted women the right to vote while it was still a territory in 1869? Was it to get enough population to become a state? Because women were a stabilizing factor in the society? Someone even tried to tell me that it was because women ran most of the large ranches--

Responses:

From Rebecca A. Hunt rhunt2@earthlink.net 26 May 1998

There is no one definitive theory of why Wyoming, as a territory, granted the women's franchise. The old story was that the legislators were coerced by a woman named Ester Morris. More recently there has been a dual interpretation.

One version has the Democratic elected legislature wanting to stick it to the appointed Republican governor. If he signed he would seem a fool to the rest of the territory and the greater country as well. If he did not sign their legislation, he would alienate certain constituents. The second interpretation suggests it was a purely economic ploy to being in women, to civilize the territory enough to attract settlers. The truth(s) is (are) probably somewhere in there. I have not heard that they granted the vote because of a large number of women ranchers. In 1869 I do not believe there were a large number of women ranchers.

Whatever the original reasons, Wyoming generally embraced the concept of votes for women, to the point that they almost refused to come in as a state if they could not come in with the women's vote.

Mike Massie did an issue of "annals of Wyoming" in 1992 or 1993 where he analyzed the various arguments. It should be available as a journal search in your library.

By the way, Utah, just a month after Wyoming, in January of 1870,granted their women the right to vote as a purely political ploy to help the Mormon church retain power during the wave of Gentile miners moving into their territory.

From Curt Cardwell cardwell1123@aol.com 26 May 1998

I cannot, at the moment, provide documentation, but I thought Utah was the earliest territory to grant women the franchise. Women received the right to vote in Utah in 1870. The reason was to protect the Mormon church's practice of polygamy. By 1869-1870 many Mormons had settled in Wyoming. If Wyoming gave women the right to vote in 1869, I suspect it was for the same reason.

From James W. Loewen jloewen@zoo.uvm.edu 27 May 1998

It wasn't to get enough population to become a state, because voting was not the same as population. If you broaden your approach, you'll find that almost ALL the western states let women vote before almost all the eastern and southern states. (Utah was second.) Many did so AFTER statehood, but still long before eastern and southern states let women vote.

Sociologists and anthropologists theorize that scarcity of women causes their higher status, and women were scarce in the western states, relative to the east and south. (Women are still scarce in AK.)

Another theory holds that, yes, in the west, women DID (and maybe do)play a role in ranching, not necessarily "ran most of the large ranches," but intrinsic to ranching are isolation and decision-making. When the (male) rancher is off doing business (or whatever), his wife DOES have major responsibilities running the ranch. Indeed, even when he is home, on many occasions she has same, even if their relationship is patriarchal. This is not so true in settled eastern towns...

From Richard G. Ewig REwig@uwyo.edu 27 May 1998

There are a number of reasons why Wyoming Territory passed the bill granting women the right to vote and hold public office. They thought it would advertise the territory. Wyoming had been created in 1868 and only had eight to nine thousand people by 1869 so the hope was to get some free advertisement and perhaps draw some women to the new territory. Some members of the all-Democratic legislature also, apparently, wanted to embarrass the new Republican governor, by forcing him to take a stand on the issue early in his governorship. Other legislators thought the bill was a joke and never thought the governor would sign it into law on December 10, 1869. And some believed it was the right thing to do.

In 1872 the legislature passed a bill repealing the suffrage law. Governor Campbell vetoed the bill and his veto was upheld by only one vote.

The most thorough look at the passage of the suffrage law is the Spring 1990 issue of Annals of Wyoming. Information about it can also be found in T.A. Larson's book History of Wyoming.

From Thomas D. [Tom] Hall thall@DEPAUW.EDU 27 May 1998

This is a bit broader than the initial question, but Wyoming and Utah are part of larger pattern of the spread of democracy, in this case enfranchising women, that was spreading throughout the western/western influenced world. ["west" here NOT at US beyond the 100th meridian, but western european derived]. John Markoff has an excellent article reviewing this:

Markoff, John. 1998. "From Center to Periphery and Back Again: Reflections on the Geography of Democratic Innovation." Forthcoming in _Recasting Citizenship_, edited by Michael Hannd Charles Tilly. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

This is not yet published, but you might write him for a copy. He is at University of Pittsburgh, in Sociology.

From Ken Aitken kaitken@rpl.regina.sk.ca 27 May 1998

The comments on Wyoming and Utah territories granting women the right to vote in 1869 and 1870 were interesting. Here's why. Rebecca Hunt says there is no definitive theory on why territorial Wyoming granted the women's franchise, and offers several possibilities. However, she dismisses the women's franchise in Utah as a political ploy to help the mormon church retain power. Methinks Rebecca might look a little deeper than that.

Curt Cardwell suggests an alternate theory for Utah and Wyoming -- to protect the Mormon practice of polygamy among the Mormons in both states.I am a bit disappointed. Surely someone has looked more seriously at Mormon culture from the territorial Utah days.

Frankly, there were enough Icelandic women in Utah to have set the ball in motion on women's rights to vote. In Iceland women were accustomed to participation in the democratic process. Here in western Canada in the 1870s petitions were circulating in the areas with Icelandic settlements urging the governments at various levels to give women the franchise. Could it not be a grass roots movement in Utah too?

What of the role of women in Mormon society in the 1860s? What have scholars learned from the diaries of men and women living in Utah? Are there evidences of women participating in the democratic process in their communities? Were women speaking up? Raising issues? Creating solutions?

Is it possible that in new lands like Wyoming and Utah, where men and women shouldered heavy burdens to survive as families, that the people were more willing to share the franchise? What evidence is there to support or challenge such a possibility.

I hope I have not offended with these comments. My concern is that the responses regarding Utah, seemed less than adequate.

From Betsy Jameson ejameson@unm.edu 27 May 1998

Lots of western women's historians have written on suffrage, in specific states and generally. A lot of this work is listed in two review essays, "The Gentle Tamers Revisited" by Joan Jensen and Darlis Miller, in the Pacific Historical Review (1980) and "Toward a Multicultural History of the United States," by me, in Signs, summer 1988. Some of this good work includes Paula Petrik's No Step Backward (on Montana), Carolyn Stefanco's article on Colorado suffrage in Armitage and Jameson, The Women's West, Ruth Barnes Moynihan's biography of Oregon suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway, two fine articles in Karen Blair's Women of the Pacific Northwest, and several very good articles by Beverly Beeton on suffrage in Utah. And this is just a start.

There are lots of debates about why western states and provinces (Canada too) were places where women could win the franchise before they did further East. The answers probably differ a bit among the various territories, states, and provinces, and the coalitions that supported women suffrage varied a bit over time and in different economic and social contexts. This would be a rich opportunity for someone to write a new synthesis of western suffrage.

From wlbagley wlbagley@xmission.com 27 May 1998

I much appreciate Kenneth G. Aitken comments on the complexity of the suffrage movement in the territories. And I'm delighted to point out that although Wyoming passed the first law, a Utah woman was the first to cast a vote in the United States:

"Utah became only the second state or territory to give women the right to vote, trailing Wyoming by just two months. But it was first in the nation to provide the chance. Just two days after the act was approved, Seraph Young, a niece of Brigham Young, cast her ballot during municipal elections in Salt Lake City to become the first woman in the U.S. legally to vote."--David L. Bigler, ed. Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896. Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1998, 283.

I strongly recommend Bigler's book to anyone interested in territorial history or the Mormons in the West (and I should, I edited it.) But for more on Utah women, don't miss:

Bushman, Claudia, ed. Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah. Cambridge, MA: Emmeline Press, 1976. New Edition, Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997.

From Ron Helfrich RH4754@cnsvax.albany.du 28 May 1998

....The notion that male-female ratios raise women's status seems to me to be a difficult one to argue in all cases. I recently wrote a review paper on Mormon polygamy. Several researchers have found that in Utah, for instance, the male to female ratios were even. This, of course, makes it difficult to take the "frontier" position with respect to Mormon polygamy, and by implication, to the franchisement of the LDS women. Certainly, political concerns were important to Utah's granting of women the right to vote.

P.S. Kenneth Aitkin's point about Icelandic women in Utah is an interesting one. My understanding, however, is that there were substantial Scandinavians in Utah but the majority of these were from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, not Iceland. I would be interested in the breakdown of Scandinavian immigrants to Utah by country of origin, however, and their dates of arrival.

From John Alley jalley@press.usu.edu 28 May 1998

I appreciate Will Bagley's plug of USU Press's reprint of _Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah_, edited by Claudia L. Bushman and with a new introduction by Anne Frior Scott. But an even better source on the subject under discussion, one that includes two of the Beverly Beeton essays mentioned by Betsy Jameson, is another 1997 USU publication, _Battle for the Ballot: Essays on Woman Suffrage in Utah, 1870-1896_, edited by Carol Cornwall Madsen.

The story of woman suffrage in Utah did indeed involve polygamy and involved speculation on both sides of the issue about the effect women voting would have on that marriage practice, but as has been noted, the story was far more complicated than tat. Certainly, the important social and economic roles of Mormon women in an essentially patriarchal society, which nevertheless often left women on their own to maintain home and family, need to be considered.