One of the pleasures during my five years working at the State Capitol in Cheyenne was seeing the statue honoring Esther Hobart Morris on my way to the office every day.
I always said hello. I admit talking to a statue is kind of weird, but it became a ritual and my way of acknowledging a key figure in the women’s rights movement. As the first woman in the country to hold public office — justice of the peace in South Pass City — Esther Hobart Morris was instrumental in establishing Wyoming as the “Equality State.”
So, when the Capitol was reopened in July following a $317 million renovation, I was shocked to find Morris’ statue missing from its place in front of the Capitol steps. Good grief, it had been there since 1963!
I learned from reading a column by my friend, Casper Star-Tribune columnist Joan Barron, that Morris and a statue of Chief Washakie were moved to the tunnel that links the Herschler and Capitol buildings.
The Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group wanted to protect the statues from weather damage and vandalism, they said. Late one night in 1973 a drunk driver hit Morris’ statue, smashing her shoulder. Esther was whisked away to a New York foundry for repairs.
The foundry lost Esther at one point. “There were some male folks in government at that time who said they wished she would never be found. That was a low point,” Barron wrote, in her deliciously dry humor.
Esther’s patina badly needs a $20,000 to $30,000 restoration. Some say it doesn’t make sense to do the work and then expose the statue to elements again.
But a group led by Cheyenne’s Peg Ostlund has presented a petition to Gov. Mark Gordon and other officials seeking Morris’ return. It reads: “For 60 years the heroic Esther has been the face of the presence of the Wyoming Capitol. She is the soul of the state seal under the banner, Equal Rights.”
Ostlund added, “When the Capitol went under [re]construction, it was with a heavy heart that I saw beloved EHM put in a prison, an ice box, a shroud. But given her significance as the face of the Capitol I knew she’d be back.”
But to the horror of Ostlund and others, Morris was relegated to the tunnel.
Gordon and House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) were the only two dissenting votes on the Oversight Committee. The group that wants Morris returned to her pedestal in front of the Capitol is urging the five elected statewide officials, led by Gordon, to reconsider the committee’s action.
Nearly lost in this controversy is the exact role Morris played in the Territorial Legislature’s vote to approve the women’s suffrage bill 150 years ago. It’s a fascinating tale, and one worth learning.
As a rookie reporter, I read old newspaper accounts of Morris hosting a tea party in South Pass City in 1869. The story goes that at the event, she extracted promises from Democratic and Republican legislative candidates to pass a suffrage bill.
Democrat William Bright won the legislative election and held true to his word. Thus, Esther Hobart Morris was enshrined in Wyoming history as “the mother of women’s suffrage.”
It’s a great, stirring story. The only problem, according to historians who researched the primary sources, is that it isn’t true. They concluded there was no tea party, and Bright’s inspiration for sponsoring the bill appears to have been encouragement from his wife.
State historian Rick Ewig debunked the myth in the Annals of Wyoming’s winter 2006 issue (“Did She Do That? Examining Esther Morris’ Role in the Passage of the Suffrage Act”). While Morris was a suffrage supporter who spoke at several national conventions and at Wyoming’s statehood celebration in 1890, she never mentioned the alleged tea party. She gave all the credit to Bright.
Ewig wrote that it wasn’t until 1919, 17 years after Morris’ death and a year before women nationally won the right to vote, that the tea party incident was “invented” during a speech by Herman Nickerson, Bright’s 1869 GOP opponent. Morris’ life had a new legacy.
Nickerson’s real aim, according to Ewig, was to embarrass Democrats and credit Republicans for Wyoming’s bold move. Wyoming historian Grace Raymond Hebard picked up the tea party tale and ran with it, giving it so much credibility that it is repeated in school textbooks and elsewhere.
The all-Democratic Territorial Legislature passed the bill, but some believe they may have done so to make Republican Gov. John Campbell look bad when he vetoed it. But instead, he signed it.
Embarrassingly, the Legislature tried to repeal the law a year later, failing by a single vote. Nickerson claimed Democrats were angry that many women used their votes to elect Republicans.
Morris is a symbol of equal rights for women, Ewig noted, “but it should be based on her tenure as a judge, not as someone ‘nagging’ or hosting a tea/dinner party or influencing in some way the passage of suffrage in 1869.”
I agree. There is much to admire about her eight-month tenure as a justice of the peace. She handled nearly 30 cases with only one appeal, and that ruling was upheld.
Christine Peterson wrote in a recent Morris profile that some men in South Pass City didn’t want her to serve any longer. “One of those men was her husband, who forcefully disapproved of her appointment,” Peterson noted. “At one point, he disrupted her courtroom — so much she had him thrown in jail.”
Now that’s a story I’d like to know more about!
Wendy Madsen of the Legislative Service Office, who worked extensively on the lengthy Capital Square project, told Barron the long-range plan is to have a Wyoming Statuary Hall, featuring Morris and Chief Washakie.
That sounds nice. Still, if I had a vote, I’d place Morris back front-and-center of the Capitol. I just think she belongs there, 56 years after she made her well-earned debut in the spot.
In any event, whenever you’re at the Capitol, stop and say hello to Esther, no matter where she is located. Her memory deserves a moment of your time. You can tell her I sent you.