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.
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.