When people think of women’s rights, few imagine a 75-year-old Laramie pioneer woman — an apron over her house dress and an empty tin pail in hand — making history on her walk to the bakery.
But when Louisa Gardner Swain cast her vote in September 1870 as the first female voter in U.S. history, she began a decades-long tradition of Wyoming women breaking glass ceilings.
Wyoming is home to a list of the country’s groundbreaking women: the first female voter, the first female juror, the first woman to hold judicial office, the first woman to hold statewide office and the first female governor. These women earned the state its nickname: “The Equality State.”
Yet the country’s first female presidential candidate from a major party is expected to perform worse in Wyoming — an early standard bearer for the right of women to hold public office — than almost everywhere else. Like the state’s uneasiness with Hillary Clinton, the more recent history of women in state politics is an uncomfortable one.
Wyoming elected the country’s first female governor in 1925 but hasn’t elected a woman to the office since. Wyoming has never had a female U.S. senator. Of the 29 U.S. representatives elected since Wyoming was a territory, only two have been women. The state has the second-lowest percentage of female state legislators in the country as well as one of the worst gender pay gaps.
“We started out pretty good, but we’ve been losing ground ever since,” said state Sen. Bernadine Craft, the only woman in the 30-member Wyoming Senate.
Although men allowed women to cast their first votes peacefully in 1870, opposition to women voting was strong.
“I think women were made to obey men,” one male legislator said, as recorded in a 1872 newspaper article. “I don’t think women should mingle in the dirty pool of politics.”
Another male legislator expounded on the dangers of allowing women serve on juries.
“I don’t b’lieve she’s fit for it, no how,” he said. “Wot right has she got on a jury, anyhow?”
Both male and female detractors thought allowing women to vote would make them less motherly and less gentle, old newspaper articles show. Women were too pure and refined to work in politics. Further, allowing them to vote would endanger family life.
They were wrong.
“There were no revolutionary, startling or spectacular effects from women’s voting such as were conjured up in the wild and excited imaginations of its opponents,” read a newspaper column published in the early 1900s.
There are many theories as to why Wyoming became the first state to pass a women’s suffrage bill when several states and Congress had already tried and failed.
Women in Wyoming generally had more freedoms than women in more populated areas and were obligated to take on more public responsibilities, said Shannon Smith, director of the Wyoming Humanities Council and author of several books on women in the West.
“We were a smaller population, and women were more engaged with running society because the societies were smaller,” she said.
Some historians say legislators passed the bill as a way to market the territory to prospective residents. Others believe there was genuine support for equal voting rights. Others think the bill passed because the legislators thought it was only right that white women be able to vote if black men could do so.
“I think there were just as many motivations as there were members in the Legislature,” said Phil Roberts, professor of history at the University of Wyoming. “But if you look to the leadership, at least some modicum of principle was involved.”
At least one newspaper article backs up the claim that women were given the vote as a way to attract more women to the territory.
“We now expect at once quite an immigration of ladies to Wyoming,” reads a brief article published in the Cheyenne Daily Leader on Dec. 11, 1869 — the day after the bill was signed into law. “We say to them all, come on … We’ll even give her more than the right to vote — she can run for Congress!”
State lawmakers tried to overturn the suffrage bill a few years later, but the governor blocked them. The legislators then tried to override the governor’s veto but fell short by one vote, Roberts said.Yet the women’s ability to vote had little to do with the election of the state’s first female governor.
Wyoming elected Nellie Tayloe Ross as governor in 1924 — the nation’s first woman to hold a governor’s office. The Democratic party nominated her to run against Republican Eugene Sullivan after Ross’ husband died halfway through his term as governor.Her recent loss weighed on her the day she was elected, the Casper Daily Tribune reported. When she accepted the position — holding the yellow telegraph paper bearing the news of her election — she “evinced no elation over the distinction of having been commissioned to be the first woman ever sworn in as the chief executive of an American state.” She made no mention of the historic nature of her election in her inaugural address.
In his speech after losing, Sullivan asked that the people of Wyoming help the “little lady” as she learned to lead the state, according to a Casper Daily Tribune story from a few days after the election.
Texas elected a woman to the governor’s office that same year, and a wire service ran an article with the headline: “Women’s Triumph in Two States Is Another Step Toward the White House.” It would be another 146 years before a woman was even considered for the Oval Office.
After serving two years as governor and losing her re-election bid, Ross later became the vice-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, in charge of women’s issues. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her director of the U.S. Mint, a position she held for the next 20 years.
Yet since Ross’ election in 1920, the pace of progress for Wyoming women has slowed.Roberts believes the change is in part due to the state’s transition from a pioneering territory to a more settled state, as well as changes in the way elections and the Legislature are run.
“We were pioneering, but there’s a lot to say that much was about circumstances,” he said. Women were often called to positions because the men were all working or otherwise occupied.
The change from a legislature that was chosen via at-large elections also damaged female politicians’ chances, Roberts said. Voters used to be able to choose a slate of candidates to represent them in Cheyenne, instead of selecting only one near where they lived.
“I think that had a big impact because running wasn’t a direct, in-your-face challenge to an incumbent,” he said. “That’s not something comfortable for Wyomingites, especially women, to do.”
Demands are also greater on legislators now, Roberts said. Instead meeting for 40 days every two years, legislators must meet every year for as well as attend committee meetings. That places a burden on working legislators of both sexes, but especially on women, who still generally do more housework and take on more responsibility with children.
Sexism and well-intentioned chauvinism continued to shape Wyoming life, despite the state’s history of firsts, Roberts said. During the Great Depression, married female teachers were laid off and their jobs given to men in an attempt to “spread the jobs around.” Similarly, women who filled jobs historically held by men during World War II lost their jobs as the soldiers returned home.“There are things like that that have happened that have caused us to slip back in our principled stance on equal rights,” he said.
Women in politics today
Studies show that if women run, they are just as likely to be elected as their male competitors. The problem, state Sen. Craft said, is that women are less likely to run at all unless someone else suggests the idea.
It took multiple people persuading her over many months before Craft decided to run for an open state House position in 2006.
“It was almost like she asked me how I felt about running naked through the streets,” Craft said. “I would have never run if somebody hadn’t identified me as a possible candidate, recruited me and supported me.”
Women don’t need to start out at the state level, said Rep. Rosie Berger, the founder ofthe Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus. They could begin with positions on the boards of local charities or on city committees where they could gain the knowledge and confidence to run for higher offices.“We have all the firsts,” Berger said.
“But we really need to focus on creating leadership opportunities for women across Wyoming. None of this will happen overnight.”
Craft and Berger have both worked on programs that help train and mentor women who are considering running for a position at any level of government. Unlike men, there are a select number of female politicians to connect with and learn from.
“You never heard about the good old girls club — but you heard about the good ol’ boys,” Craft said.
But there are larger, more abstract barriers as well — negative cultural norms about women that have been repeated so often and for so long that even women have come to believe them.
“I think sometimes we tend to hold back a little because we undervalue ourselves,” Craft said. “I think sometimes we buy into those old stereotypes that men are assertive and women are b——-. We’ve heard it too many times.”
When she was a girl, Craft told her mom that she wanted to be a priest in their Episcopalian church. Despite her mom’s feminist leanings, Craft said her mom opposed women in the priesthood — she thought it was “unwomanly.”
“I think there’s just this mindset sometimes that women are not supposed to be priests, should not be in government, should not hold positions of authority, shouldn’t drive a front loader,” Craft, who is now an Episcopal priest, said. “I think that many women address that on a daily basis in politics and elsewhere.”
Since she’s been in the Senate, Craft said she’s never felt disrespected or diminished. The men treat her as an equal.
After she passed her first bill, another senator gave her an antique campaign button that reads: “Don’t call me honey, baby, or girl. Call me senator.” She still treasures it.
“I’ve never felt intimidated, I’ve never felt excluded, I’ve never felt anything but acceptance from them,” Craft said of the other 29 senators.
Berger echoed the sentiment that her male colleagues in the House have always been welcoming and respectful, but she also believes politics could gain from having more women present.
“Having women involved, typically they’re more sensitive to others’ feelings and consider them when making decision,” she said. “They’re very aware of what’s going on for the others around them.”
Despite Clinton’s relatively poll numbers in Wyoming, both women said the simple fact that a woman is running for the nation’s highest office sets an important precedent.
“We know there are all these barriers for women out there — spoken and unspoken — but I hope that Clinton will empower women to say ‘Wow, she became president of the U.S., I can run for the school board,’” Craft said. “I’m hoping that maybe the ultimate glass ceiling will be shattered.”