Thyra Thomson, a secretary of state worth remembering
— June 25, 2013
When I look back on my time covering Wyoming politics, I remember Thyra Thomson as one of my favorite state officials.
Something set her apart from many of the politicians in this state, and it wasn’t just her friendly nature or her devotion to the office of secretary of state, which she held for an amazing 24 years.
It took her death earlier this month at age 96, plus reading an oral history that former Wyoming state archivist Mark Junge did with her in 1993, for me to begin to finally understand why she was so special.
Junge, a well-known author, photographer and good friend, did an excellent job of getting Thomson to talk about her role as a woman state leader. Reading their conversation puts a lot of Thomson’s unique contributions to Wyoming into better perspective.
One thing she couldn’t understand was the desire for what became known as political correctness by some of her colleagues. “There was a time when we were expected to ‘goosestep’ to all of the popular ideas,” she recalled, and added that back in 1970 she was talking about protecting the environment. In the era of “drill baby drill” today, that notion wouldn’t be very well-received in many sectors of the Republican Party – though let’s not forget that Richard Nixon helped create the Environmental Protection Agency.
But while Nixon would probably not be able to get elected now, I doubt that Thomson would have lost any of her popularity. The issues she chose to focus much of her attention on during her time in office, including the push for gender pay equity, weren’t exactly mainstream then, but that didn’t keep voters from electing her six times to Wyoming’s No. 2 position.
Twenty years ago, Thomson told Junge she didn’t think she was ahead of her time. I think she was. In fact, in the GOP, few women politicians are as enlightened in 2013 as she was at the height of her political career decades ago.
Thomson admitted it took some time for her to get there. She recalled writing a column for the Denver Post titled, “Who Needs Women’s Lib?” and following it up with another, “Second Thoughts on Women’s Lib.”
“Then the next one I published started being original studies on the lack of pay for and promotion for women professors in colleges and how hard it was for women to be admitted to medical school, and women being at the bottom of the rung on the pay scale … And then I ended up publishing studies on comparable worth. So you see, I progressed a lot, too!” she noted.
Thomson could never understand how it could be a fact that in Wyoming, which first recognized the right of women to vote, the pay treatment of men and women could be so disparate. I well remember going to her annual news conferences on the subject of gender pay inequity, and it was easy to tell how much trying to focus attention on the problem and turn the situation around meant to her.
She did an original study in state government on comparable work, and researched men’s and women’s salaries. Thomson said she quickly concluded that Wyoming state government was “a man’s world and a woman’s place.”
She looked at all salaries above $17,500, the cut-off amount for paying Social Security taxes. While about 80 percent of the state’s employees were women, less than 2 percent were in this higher tax bracket.
“There were so many things going on in which there was not … justice. And, it was natural for me to pursue it, not only in the state but nationwide because Wyoming was the Equality State. We had the first [women voters] and it seemed to me to be incongruous that we should fall so far behind, so it was something that I thought was to be pursued,” she noted.
Bill Thomson of Cheyenne, one of her three sons, told me his mother was proud of her work to close the gender wage gap and encourage women to enter nontraditional industries that paid more than women were used to making. That included financial analysts and brokers.
He noted that while she had six older brothers, his mother was the first in her family to graduate from college. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wyoming in 1939.
“She thought it was very important for women to pursue careers,” Thomson’s son said, adding that she once did a wage study that showed more women were in higher paying jobs during World War II than there were in the 1960s and 1970s, when many were relegated to secretarial work.
The secretary of state expected men to be as well trained as women, too. “I remember I was in college when she said, ‘I don’t intend to hire a man in my office who needed a woman to do his typing,” Bill Thomson recalled. “I did my own typing, so I didn’t take umbrage at the remark.”
According to the Wyoming Council for Women’s Issues, working women in the state only earned 65.5 cents for every dollar a man earned in 2012, making it the biggest gender wage gap in the nation. While that figure and the lack of progress on the issue in the 26 years since she left office were no comfort to Thomson, I hope she realized that it was her involvement and search for solutions that helped make the public aware of the issue in the first place.
Thyra Thomson said she refused to march in “lockstep” with those who applied political pressure. “I think I’m probably somewhat more liberal than a lot of conservatives,” she confided. Can you imagine any incumbent Republican official today uttering that sentence?
Ultimately, Thomson was disappointed because her study on comparable worth “did not provoke the changes in state government that I would have hoped.”
Thomson knew why it didn’t, and she wasn’t happy about it. “That’s because when the Legislature appropriated money to follow up on it, they gave it to the Department of Administration and Fiscal Control, which is like giving it to the fox which is in charge of raiding the hen house, because they were the ones that were keeping women at the low pay scale,” she recounted.
She said unlike New Mexico, which spent its money to bring women’s salaries up to the men’s level of pay, Wyoming lawmakers preferred to just spend more money to follow-up her study. “It was done in one fell swoop [in New Mexico], and they didn’t waste it on trivial surveys and studies that had been done 100 times already!” she exclaimed. “Wyoming wasn’t that forthright. It didn’t accomplish that.”
The 1993 oral history also contained my favorite Thomson anecdote. She was at a fundraiser for the STRIDE Learning Center for developmentally disabled children in Cheyenne, and she agreed to shine the shoes of the man who was the highest bidder – by the Esther Hobart Morris statue in front of the Capitol steps. Morris, of course, had been the leader of Wyoming’s women’s suffrage movement.
“Some man by the name of Bradshaw paid $32.50 and I practiced snapping my cloth and all of that. I shined his shoes! I got down on my knees and shined his shoes in front of the state Capitol,” she said. Gloria Steinem would no doubt have gasped at such a sight, but Thomson didn’t care about what others may have thought.
Junge asked her what was the purpose of that stunt. “Well, I raised money, didn’t I, for charity?” she said. “And he had a good time.”
“So you stooped to conquer?” the historian asked.
“Well put!” she said with a laugh.
Thyra Thomson didn’t enter politics as a candidate until after her husband Keith died in December 1960, shortly after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. But her storied career puts her in the company of such influential Wyoming women as Morris and former governor Nellie Tayloe Ross. She was a born leader, and our state is much richer because of her public service.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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