One of my favorite statues in downtown Laramie is that of Louisa Swain. As I have walked to the farmers market or down to grab a coffee, you can’t help but notice her. Small, a little stooped, holding a small bucket, a cap on her head. I passed her for years before I looked up who she was. Louisa Swain, the first woman to cast a ballot in a general election in the United States. Daughter of a sea captain, and who decided that while she was buying yeast, she would just vote as well. Making bread, voting — I don’t think she realized she was making history.
It’s hard right now not to get caught up in the fervor and celebrations of women’s suffrage. And Wyoming is at the forefront, being the first territorial legislature to grant women suffrage in 1869, and this is a fact is worth celebrating. But there is something that gives me pause in all these festivities and congratulations.
And that is that many Asian, black, Native and Latin women were not part of this history. They often asked for voting rights without the same results as white women.
The 19th Amendment and Wyoming’s women suffrage did not always include all women. These laws were primarily for white middle- and upper-class women — most women of color largely did not enjoy the right to vote after 1869. Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan had a firm grip in the Southern states. African American women in the 1920s South were as affected as African American men, who after the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 struggled to vote. Indigenous peoples and Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924, so they were not able to vote.
Susan B. Anthony, who I was taught to love as child in history class, was opposed to slavery before the Civil War and formed alliances with abolitionists like Frederick Douglass. But these alliances frayed when she saw that African American men would get the vote before white women. Anthony famously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” This shows the complicated intersection between race and voting.
Wyoming’s women of color often do make history, and strides have been made. My mother, Nimi McConigley, was the first person born in India to be elected to a state legislature in the United States. Affie Ellis is the first Navajo and the first Native American to serve in the Wyoming state Senate. These achievements highlight how women in Wyoming continue to make firsts. Gov. Mark Gordon’s task force on missing and murdered Indigenous persons illuminates the high rates of murder or missing Native American women and girls, a fact that has been ignored for decades.
But while the right to vote was a giant step at that time, as we celebrate going forward, we still as a state have a long way to go for women. I for one would like to celebrate when women in Wyoming are paid the same as men. It was reported last year that in a comprehensive review of 228 occupations in Wyoming, women earned on average 32 cents less for every dollar compared with their male counterparts — the highest such wage gap in the nation. Along with the celebrations, let’s fix this.
I am for a women’s movement that champions the rights of all women, whatever their economic status or race. But in this moment of celebration, it is important to remember that injustice and inequality about race and gender still exists in Wyoming today. A task force has to exist to highlight missing Indigenous women. Our Legislature is only 15.6 percent women. More women need to run for office, and in the state, more women of color need to have predominant roles in our leadership.
I still think of Louisa Swain. Going to town to buy yeast, walking home having made history. She was an average, quiet woman — doing what was legally hers to do. History allows the average person to be extraordinary. Her first step started the path that we Wyoming women need to continue on, making sure women’s voices, all women’s voices, are heard. That road ahead is long. We still have work to do.
Nina McConigley is an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, and currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!