How Wyoming Led the Charge on Women's Right to Vote

How Wyoming Led the Charge on Women's Right to Vote

Why you should care

Because sometimes those who don’t take credit deserve it most.

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Julia Bright was a classic Victorian wife, publicly deferring to her husband and keeping up the womanly ideals of the late 19th century. But her quiet force helped make Wyoming one of the first jurisdictions in the world to give women the right to vote — a full half-century before the rest of the United States fell in line.

Bright had volunteered for the suffrage movement in Washington, D.C., but moved out West with her Union Army veteran husband, 21 years her senior and far less educated. A gold rush brought them to Wyoming’s South Pass City, where William Bright opened a saloon. In 1869, the newly formed territory elected its first territorial legislature. William was voted the leader of the Council (the Senate, essentially), and the couple moved the nearly 300 miles to Cheyenne with a baby son in tow. “[William Bright’s] character was not above reproach, but he had an excellent, well-informed wife and he was a kind, indulgent husband,” Justice J. W. Kingman, who served on the Territorial Supreme Court, later wrote.

Wyoming was followed the next year by Utah territory, officially putting the West at the forefront of the women’s suffrage revolution …

There were plenty of hot topics for that first legislature to tackle, such as how to tax early residents and where to place the prison. But the stars aligned for women’s suffrage among the all-Democratic legislators, and the Republicans appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to run Wyoming. The territorial secretary, Edward Lee, had pushed to give women the franchise as a legislator in Connecticut, but the measure was voted down in 1867. The governor, John Campbell, had been in favor of women’s suffrage in Ohio.

Lee is believed to have helped write the bill in favor of the women’s vote, according to University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts. This is likely, he says, given Lee’s prior legislative experience. But when William Bright introduced it, some colleagues saw his wife’s hand. “Mrs. Bright was a very womanly suffragist, and I always understood and still believe that it was through her influence that the bill was introduced,” fellow South Pass City legislator and suffrage opponent Ben Sheeks later wrote. “I know that I supposed at the time that she was the author of the bill. What reason, if any, I had for thinking so I do not remember. Possibly it was only that she seemed intellectually and in education superior to Mr. Bright.”

In addition to the nakedly sexist opposition to the bill, there was (justified) concern among the men that women would push temperance or even alcohol prohibition. Much of the hardly saintly pro-suffrage argument rested on the fact that Black and Chinese men now had the vote, so white women deserved their say. But Wyoming also saw a pioneering law as a recruitment tool for a territory with a population of just 9,100 in the 1870 census. “This was looked on as a way to encourage permanency, period,” Roberts says. “The theory was, if you encourage women in various ways, you can get families to relocate. And presumably they are more permanent than bringing in a bunch of transient men on the railroad or in the mines.”

Campbell signed the law on Dec. 10, 1869, sealing Wyoming’s place in history. (New Jersey had granted female property owners the vote in 1776, but its legislature rescinded the franchise in 1807.) Wyoming was followed the next year by Utah territory, officially putting the West at the forefront of the women’s suffrage revolution — old rules didn’t necessarily apply on the frontier. After Wyoming became a state in 1890, women were able to vote for president and members of Congress, even though the 19th Amendment securing the vote for all American women was not ratified until 1920.

Julia didn’t stick around long enough to see the fruits of her behind-the-scenes labors. With the South Pass City mines in decline, the Brights moved on to Colorado and later California. In 1871, with anti-suffrage Sheeks the only incumbent returning to the legislature, there was a backlash against women’s suffrage. The legislature nearly repealed Wyoming’s law, coming one vote short of overriding Campbell’s veto.

By then, women were serving on juries, where they reportedly were tougher on drunken defendants. Esther Hobart Morris, the first female judicial officeholder in the United States, became a national face of the suffrage movement as a well-respected justice of the peace in South Pass City — proving women had the temperament to hold office. Morris’ statue now sits in the U.S. Capitol, and she’s often given credit for pushing the initial suffrage bill through. But such accolades belong instead to the young, demure Julia Bright.

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