June Downey and other female members of the University of Wyoming faculty on the steps of Old Main, 1898, her first year teaching at the institution. Downey is in the back row, left, in a dark jacket over a white blouse. (American Heritage Center)

Last week, in the midst of its 2022 Budget Session, the Wyoming Senate narrowly passed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have prohibited the University of Wyoming from expending funds on “any gender studies courses, academic programs, co-curricular programs or extracurricular programs.” The measure did not survive the House; for the moment, UW’s gender studies program — one of the oldest in the nation — is safe. 

Opinion

It is hard to believe that such a bill would be given serious consideration in Wyoming, of all places. To eliminate the teaching of gender studies from the university, one would have to eliminate teaching Wyoming’s own groundbreaking history. On Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming Territory granted full political equality to “every woman of the age of twenty-one years residing in this territory,” becoming the first government in the history of the United States to grant all women equal political rights. When Wyoming became a state in 1890, it was the only place in the country where women citizens were fully enfranchised under the law. 

Wyoming’s example of gender equality influenced activists across the American West and across the country. Wyoming suffragists such as Mary Bellamy and Theresa Jenkins played important roles in regional and national suffrage campaigns. Wyoming politicians such as Joseph and Robert Carey, Frances E. Warren, Clarence Clark, Henry Coffeen and Frank Mondell were staunch supporters of a federal suffrage amendment, which after decades of struggle finally became codified as the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. 

Wyoming’s early support of women’s rights is so clearly on the right side of history that it is easy to forget that, at the time, it was radical and scandalous. When Wyoming’s application for statehood was being considered in Congress, politicians from other states warned of dire consequences. Rep. Joseph Washington of Tennessee declared that woman suffrage “can only result in the end in unsexing and degrading the womanhood of America. It is emphatically a reform against nature.” Rep. William Oats of Alabama based his opposition to suffrage in the Bible: “I like a woman who is a woman and appreciates the sphere to which God and the Bible have assigned her. I do not like a man-woman.” 

Today, few politicians would argue that women voters are degraded, unnatural and un-Biblical. This is partly because Wyoming led the way in shifting American notions of gender and normalizing political participation for women. In 1892, as Wyoming’s women became the first to vote in a presidential election, Sen. F.E. Warren said: “The woman voter has been subjected to a great many jokes. She has been a target for the newspaper paragraphist and the magazine writer. Nevertheless, I believe the day is coming when every State will see the injustice and disadvantage of political rights because of sex.”

The University of Wyoming itself played a significant role in the expansion of women’s rights and opportunities. In an era when few universities would open their doors to women as students, UW was hiring women as professors. Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard is the most well known of Wyoming’s early female professors. Other prominent female scholars in the university’s early history include historian Dr. Agnes Wergeland, psychologist Dr. June Etta Downey and historian Dr. Laura White. (UW graduates will recognize Downey and White as the namesakes of two of its dorms). In its early days, some decried the preponderance of women at UW as “Petticoat Rule,” but these women shook off such criticism and fought for the right for women to teach, research and write. Dr. White in particular was important in the nationwide fight for academic freedom for college professors. 

It is because of this distinctive history that Wyoming’s Legislature, in the 1950s, decided that Wyoming should be represented in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall by Esther Morris. Morris was the first woman in U.S. history to serve as a Justice of the Peace, serving her term in South Pass City in 1870. Morris was the first female officeholder in Wyoming’s history, but in the late nineteenth and early 20th century, many other women served as county superintendents of education, county clerks and justices of the peace. These Wyoming women are part of the first generation of female elected officials in U.S. History. 

The story of Wyoming suffrage is not all heroic; as in other parts of the country, many Wyoming women faced discrimination at the polls. This is particularly true of Wyoming’s Indigenous women, who were not considered U.S. citizens until after 1924 — and who often faced voter suppression even after that. 

Even if incomplete, Wyoming’s extension of voting rights to women represents an important step forward in progress toward true equal protection under the law. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “This is the first genuine republic the world has ever seen, the first recognition in government of the great principle of equal rights for all.” 

The most fundamental rights of a “genuine republic” are freedom of speech and thought. In a free republic, government does not seek to stifle debate in the public square. It does not seek to control what its citizens think, read or learn. The students of the University of Wyoming do not need the Legislature to dictate the content of their classes or their extra-curricular activities. 

In a free society, citizens can make their own decisions about what to think and how to live.

Jennifer Helton

A native of Wyoming, Jennifer Helton is assistant professor of history at Ohlone College in Fremont, California. She has written essays on women’s voting rights in the West for the National Park Service...

Join the Conversation

7 Comments

Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Love the article and the reminder of women’s history in Wyoming, though I would disagree with “Today, few politicians would argue that women voters are degraded, unnatural and un-Biblical.” If that were the case, this amendment would never have been added or passed by the senate. Women are far from being treated or valued equally in todays society. My daughter chose a profession that a Boise State Professor thinks she has no business being in. We have a long ways to go still.

  2. The only comment that needs to be made is this attempt will return as this state has the most ignorant uneducated and pandering elected representatives in the nation. They find a hook to use to get elected from ALEC, Liberty Group, Freedom group, QAnon, etc. They don’t even know enough to investigate or learn about whatever they go after. This is the perfect example. I sincerely believe that the old saying that anyone can be part of government is totally bullshit. The people who we elect need to have an education and a willingness to continue that education. I tell you this whole thing happened because of hate. “Gender” is the hook word that drove this and no one even knew what the classes entailed, who takes them, how they apply to other degrees. They just ran with it. Shameful. Stop electing these corrupted ignorant uneducated fringe. We have competent people and we need to encourage them to run and they need to play the dirty game of exposing this. We are the laughing stock if the entire country. And guess what, it is well deserved.

    1. I agree. Look no further than our elected treasurer that has no background or education in anything accounting related.

      Makes sense that the State “lost” over 100 million in funds when the person overseeing funds has an agricultural background.

  3. I’m really glad you wrote this and I’m really glad to have read it… freedom… inherent human rights.

  4. My Wyoming grandmother and mother made sure I knew and was proud of this history as I grew up. They were interested in politics, and began a family tradition of discussing the ballot among the widest assortment of family and friend views they could. While being elegantly served cheese, apples, beer, cake, cookies and wine, you stated your opinion on a ballot issue, and then the next person stated theirs; no discussion or argument, just viewpoints. Thanks for writing the article.

  5. Thank you for posting this excellent article….and reminder of Wyoming’s past re: women’s rights.