CHEYENNE — What happened to Esther?
Esther is the iconic Esther Hobart Morris, the first woman justice of the peace who played a role in giving Wyoming women the right to vote.
She is known as “the mother of women’s suffrage.”
For more than 50 years a bronze statue of Morris has stood with a stern face and stately grace in front of the Capitol Building in Cheyenne.
Now that space is empty.
Esther has been relegated to the bowels of the Capitol Building, as it were. Her new home is in renovated space in the tunnel connecting the Capitol and the Herschler Building.
A group of activist women in Cheyenne do not like the new location for Esther and want her moved back to her pedestal in front of the Capitol.
“Wherever we go, we spread the word,” said Peg Ostlund, a Cheyenne resident and spokesman for the group, which includes her mother, Mary Ostlund.
They are finding a lot of people who agree that Esther belongs back in front of the Capitol.
Ostlund has put together a packet of photos, information and a petition written in the voice of her 16-year-old wonder dog, Jake. She sent the eloquent petition to influential people like Gov. Mark Gordon, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson and former Gov. Mike Sullivan.
“For 60 years,” it reads, “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... So when the Capitol went under 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.”
If the Capitol is “the people’s house,” Esther is the “people’s symbol,” Ostlund wrote.
But whoa. Esther will not be in a dark, dank basement, but in a large open area with a skylight in the new Herschler Building lower level extension, said Wendy Madsen, of the Legislative Service Office who works on special projects like the Capitol Square Project.
“It’s beautiful well lit space” and now appears like part of the Capitol,” Madsen said last week in a telephone interview.
Moving Esther inside is part of a long range plan to establish a Wyoming Statuary Hall. Esther and Chief Washakie are to be the anchors, the main attractions.
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They will be part of the larger concept of the education center, which is located to accommodate students and tourists alike.
In this setting, Esther will get more attention than she had been getting outside the building.
Also the elements have not been kind. Esther needs her patina restored.
“I would hate to see her moved back outside,” Madsen said.
Esther, the women’s rights pioneer, meanwhile, has had much to cope with in life and as a statue. She began her 8-month stint as justice of the peace in 1870 by arresting her predecessor, Judge J. W. Stillman, who vigorously opposed her appointment and refused to hand over his court docket.
She subsequently dismissed her case on grounds that, as a interested party, she didn’t have the authority to arrest Stillman.
According to author Lynne Cheney writing in American Heritage, Esther then began anew with her own docket, “holding court sitting on a wood slab in the living room of her log cabin.”
Moving ahead a hundred years, in the 1970s Esther’s statue was hit by a late night drunk driver whose car ended up on the steps of the Capitol.
With a shoulder smashed by the collision the statue was shipped to a foundry in New York for repairs.
The foundry lost the statue at one point and Esther remained missing for months. There were some male folks in government at that time who said they wished she would never be found. That was a low point.
Eventually she was located, refurbished and returned to her post in front of the Capitol. A high point was in 1973 when a group of delighted, activist women festooned her with flowers after the Legislature passed the Equal Rights Amendment.
When it comes to women’s equality, Ostlund said in an interview, Wyoming needs to do more.
“We can never let our guard down and we must never forget that at one time women had to fight to vote.”
So the group intends to continue to spread the word about Esther and get her back where they feel she belongs.
“We’re going to keep it up,” Ostlund said.