Women of Wyoming were pioneers leading the nation

Esther Hobart Morris (left) of South Pass City was the first female Justice of the Peace in the nation. Nellie Tayloe Ross (center) was the nation’s first female governor. Elizabeth Byrd (right) was the first African American woman to serve in Wyoming’s state legislature. (COURTESY PHOTOS / Wyoming State Archives)

Editor’s note: This is part of a Gazette series for Women’s History Month that highlights the contributions of Wyoming women and also the challenges faced by women in the Equality State.

Wyoming has always been a state of pioneering individuals. It is also a state that boasts many “firsts” for women in the United States.

In September of 1869, the Wyoming Territorial Legislature granted women the right to vote, hold public office and own property.

That meant Wyoming women who voted — like 69-year-old Louisa Swain, who became the first woman to cast a ballot in Wyoming — were the first women in the world to do so freely. 

Wyoming legislator William Bright, an uneducated saloon-keeper and Union Army veteran, proposed the suffrage bill, which stated that “every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this Territory, may at every election to beholden under the law thereof, cast her vote.”

Historians vary on the real reasons the legislature passed the bill. It may have been a stunt solely to attract more women to the growing state.

Other historians say that the motive was racist, with legislators joking that if the legislature was going to give blacks the vote, women might as well be able to do the same.

The 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which formally granted all women the right to vote, wasn’t passed until 1920.

So, even though the decision to grant women a fundamental human right may have been made for the wrong reasons, it still put Wyoming ahead of the rest of the nation, and paved the way for several Wyoming women to make history.

Nellie Tayloe Ross was inaugurated as the 14th governor of Wyoming on Jan. 5, 1925 — making her the first woman governor in the nation.

Ross ran for governor after her husband, who had served as Wyoming’s governor for almost two years, died in office. Ross took on what was thought to be a man’s job, in a tough time for Wyoming.

She surprised the press and her political opposition with her ambition and diplomatic skills. Ross spoke at the Woman’s World Fair in Chicago in 1925, and spoke at the National Governors’ Conference in Maine. She also presided at a meeting of western governors on water issues.

Ross refused to let the ‘good old boys’ of Wyoming push her around, and she stuck to the promises her husband had made, as well as her own political ideals, which included lowering taxes, obtaining funds for the university and school districts and enforcing prohibition.

Nellie Tayloe Ross didn’t believe that women should be appointed to office just because they were women — she examined the political merits of each person she appointed.

She later served as the director of the Women’s Division of the National Democratic Committee, and ran the campaign for the women’s vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1933, she was named director of the Bureau of the Mint, the first woman to hold the job.

In 1870, Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass City was appointed the first female justice of the peace in the U.S. She was 59 when appointed to serve out the term of a man who had resigned in protest after the women’s suffrage amendment passed.

In 1894, Estelle Reel became the first woman elected to a state-wide office in the nation. She served as the superintendent of public instruction for Wyoming. Reel helped direct funding to Wyoming schools and spurred legislation that would give Wyoming students free textbooks.

Liz Byrd became the first black woman to serve in Wyoming’s House of Representatives. She served from 1981-1988. In 1989, Byrd was elected to Wyoming’s Senate, making her the first black person to serve there.

Byrd sponsored the Martin Luther King holiday bill, bringing it before the Wyoming Legislature nine times.

Her son said, “There were all kinds of political problems the Legislature faced as she repeatedly brought the bill back with more resolve each time. In the end there was a compromise to add ‘equality day,’ which she never liked, but did understand this was the closest the bill had ever gotten to becoming law and accepted the added language rather than lose the entire bill again.”

Wyoming earned the moniker ‘The Equality State’ far before any other state in the nation considered that women could contribute to politics. Read the Gazette next week for another article celebrating Wyoming women and Women’s History Month.