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Esther Hobart Morris

Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass City became the country's first female justice of the peace in 1870. Her first case was to prosecute her predecessor, who refused to relinquish his docket and records in protest of a woman filling the position. 

When people in other parts of the country think of Wyoming, cowboys, bison and wide open spaces come to mind. Perhaps they recall a visit to Yellowstone or driving across the prairie on Interstate 80. Maybe they think of an angler standing beside a mountain stream or a small town rodeo.

But there is an important part of our state and our history that is often overlooked. People call Wyoming the Cowboy State, but that’s not our official moniker. We are the Equality State, named so because of the critical role Wyoming played in the women’s suffrage movement.

On Dec. 10, 1869, the then-Wyoming Territory recognized women’s unconditional right to vote and hold office – the first place to do so in the U.S. Since then, Wyoming has been home to a number of firsts in the history of women’s rights.

In 1870, Louisa Swain arguably became the first woman in the U.S. to cast a ballot in a general election. That same year, Esther Hobart Morris became our country’s first female justice of the peace. Women served on juries in Wyoming before any other state in the country. This was the first place where women voted for president. And in 1933, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the country’s first female governor.

This rich history is taught in Wyoming schools and immortalized in statues in our cities. But it remains less well known than other parts of our state’s story – especially outside of Wyoming. With the 150th anniversary of suffrage now only a few months away, we hope that changes. This is a moment for Wyomingites to be proud of our state’s legacy.

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Over the next year, in a project titled, “Breaking Through,” the Star-Tribune will profile 40 women who’ve found success in our state, from politics to the arts, from athletics to the business world. The stories will explore the characteristics of these women that allowed them to overcome the challenges they faced. We hope these women’s stories will inspire young people to recognize these same characteristics of success in themselves, to help them realize their full potential, and to push past any barriers they encounter along the way.

We also hope this anniversary serves as a moment to examine the roles women play in modern Wyoming. While our state has a proud history in the suffrage movement, it’s also the state with one of the largest wage gaps between men and women in our country.

Or consider our politics. The Wyoming Legislature is made up of 90 lawmakers. Only 14, or about 15 percent, are women. On the local level, only one of the nine members of the Casper City Council is a woman.

Clearly, there is work to be done to make our state a more equitable place for women. And with the attention projects like “Breaking Through” will bring into focus, comes the chance to examine ourselves through the lens of 40 remarkable women who found or are finding success in Wyoming. It is the occasion to find inspiration in these women who accomplish their goals in Wyoming and to use that inspiration to pursue our individual and collective success in this state where, looking back over the past 150 years, anything is clearly possible.

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