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Women’s Sites of Struggles for Self-Determination: Rethinking the Long History of Woman Suffrage through Multidimensional Mobilizations (1800s-1970s)

Race, Gender, and Empire: The Strange Career of Women’s Voting Rights in Wyoming

Virginia Scharff


Les historiennes et historiens s’interrogent depuis longtemps sur le fait que le droit de vote des femmes fut d’abord gagné dans les territoires de l’Ouest étatsunien, loin des foyers principaux de l’activisme politique des femmes. Cet article démontre que c’est la convergence entre la politique de la Reconstruction après la guerre de Sécession et les dynamiques suprématistes blanches du colonialisme de peuplement qui explique pourquoi les femmes ont obtenu le droit de vote dans le territoire du Wyoming en 1869. Les droits des femmes blanches sont apparus comme un instrument permettant d’agrandir l’empire étatsunien dans un espace qui était alors principalement occupé par des populations indigènes.

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  • 1 This essay has its roots in my chapter “Empire, Liberty, and Legend: Woman Suffrage in Wyoming” (Sc (...)

1Wyoming Territory enfranchised women in December of 1869, becoming the first jurisdiction in the United States to affirm women’s voting rights. Of all the places and times in the history of the United States that one might expect American women to win the right to vote, the barely established federal Territory of Wyoming seems an unlikely prospect. Wyoming Territory was at the ragged western edge of the lands claimed by the United States, remote from centers of American progressive politics, inhabited mostly by Indigenous people and a shifting cohort of mostly male transient emigrants. Surely, other American locales offered more fertile ground for such a reform. In the northeastern part of the country, women had for decades been instrumental in the abolitionist movement, and white women like Lucretia Mott and African American women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper had long campaigned for their own rights (Jones). Northern abolitionists, by this time in control of the federal government as Radical Republicans, had moved quickly to secure freedom for formerly enslaved people, and to insure the privileges and immunities of citizenship for formerly enslaved men. Surely, a progressive government that could pass three constitutional amendments and two Civil Rights Acts might, in theory, have included votes for women in the package of privileges and immunities of citizenship they sought to enforce, in the South, at the point of a bayonet?1

2But instead, American women first won the right to vote at the farthest reach of American settlement, on the high plains and mountain slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Historians have long wondered why such an unprecedented civil rights measure found success at the periphery, rather than the center of power and reformist energy in the United States. Some have posited that women’s activism and men’s chivalry combined to produce the first suffrage victory in Wyoming (Hebard). Others have held that progressive political alliances in the West made it easier to win women’s voting rights (Mead). Still others have seen the first victory in Wyoming as a coincidence, a joke or a politically expedient stunt (Larson, 1953 74-78; Larson, 1972 4-16; Larson, 1978 78-94). One historian has pointed to a happy confluence of circumstances in an unexpected locale (Massie 2-21).

3This essay will argue that the politics of settler colonialism combined with the momentum of the drive for broadening civil rights, to create an unexpected opening for advances in women’s rights. The US federal government, then just restoring its control over southern states lately in rebellion, was endeavoring to extend its authority over a vast and multiply occupied territory to the West. In order to do so, the government encouraged white settlement of places still mostly inhabited by Native people. An array of diverse constituencies, both Native and emigrant, jockeyed to claim a place, or at least sustain themselves, on this contested terrain, and the politics of race operated along multiple vectors. As Wyoming boosters worked to attract white emigrant families, they used sometimes paradoxical tools in the campaign to implant white supremacy where it had never existed. Woman suffrage was one such tool.

4In 1869, Wyoming Territory was more a projection or a wish on the part of American empire-builders than a political entity. At the moment that women won the vote, the area claimed as Wyoming Territory was not under United States control. As Union Pacific Railroad crews moved through the southern edge of the territory, a succession of construction camp towns came into being almost overnight, and disappeared nearly as fast. Indigenous people far outnumbered emigrants. Lakota, Shoshone, Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, and Bannock people inhabited most of the land in and around the territory’s borders, according to the just-signed treaties of Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger (Ostler). North of the railroad, the United States had established forts along the Bozeman Trail, but the army had agreed to abandon those forts. Only along the railroad corridor could the United States claim authority, and only tenuously there.

5Very few people in the area to be organized under US auspices qualified as citizens of the United States. By 1868, some 5,000 American voters claimed residency, enough that Wyoming could be organized as a territory of the United States. Emigrant men outnumbered women migrants by a ratio of five to one. Most were men on the move, many of them hardened Civil War veterans who had fought on both sides of the conflict, who were there to make some money and had little interest in settling themselves permanently in the place. They were not partisans of the cause of women’s rights. When the victory for women’s enfranchisement came, some called it a crime, some dismissed it as a non-event, a freak, or a jest, and only a few marked the occasion as the opening of an epoch of peace, justice, and progress.

6Which of these diverse humans were at that moment entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship? Anglo and African Americans, Chinese, Irish, German, and French immigrants, as well as ethnic Mexicans from both inside and outside the United States had made the trek to Wyoming Territory. Among Anglo men, many had served in the Confederate Army, and the US Congress had explicitly excluded them from exercising the full rights of citizenship (unless granted amnesty), by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, adopted in May 1868. Women, too, had been excluded from full citizenship in that landmark provision (Ginsburg 161-179).

7All of these facts make the triumph of woman suffrage in Wyoming all the more mysterious. Most American citizens in Wyoming were males, and most women in Wyoming were members of Indigenous communities. Who, really, was there to advocate for the reform, and on what terms? Why did they succeed, at a time when enfranchising women seemed too radical even to most of those who proved themselves Radicals in word and deed?

  • 2 See West; Richardson. Feminist scholars have explored the gendered, racial, and imperial politics o (...)

8To begin to unravel this puzzle, it is useful to think along continental lines and on a timeline of decades. The Civil War and the conquest of the West were not separate, but instead a single yet complex historical phenomenon: a war for control as well as emancipation; a continental war for dominion; a war over the extension of citizens’ rights beyond the domain of white men; and sometimes a war for progress and justice.2 The Territory of Wyoming was a work-in-process, a product of struggles over who counted as an American and a citizen, and who had the right to call their bodies or their home lands their own. Women’s enfranchisement in the United States was born on the ground of conquest and race war, in the inconceivably remote hamlet of South Pass City, Wyoming Territory, as a means of implanting white supremacy where it had never before been.

9Americans carried the politics of slavery into western territory, sparking violent incidents that led to the larger Civil War. After the war, they brought the tensions of Reconstruction to places they meant to conquer, far removed from the recently re-conquered South. Military conquest and genocide were the two most horrible means of domination. But if the United States was to gain permanent control of places far from Washington, DC, it needed other, less bloody instruments (Richardson; Scharff, 2015; Arenson and Graybill).

10The government established a system to survey and sell land, and once surveyed, that land had to be governed. When 5,000 US voters claimed to live someplace, they could organize a territorial government, elect an assembly, and send a nonvoting delegate to the United States Congress. However, most officeholders, including the territorial governor and judges, would be federal appointees, introducing a frequently tense dynamic (R. White, 1991 155-178).

11Beginning in 1862, when Congress chartered the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads to build a rail line that would link east and west, the government embarked on a massive program to subsidize a network of rail lines for a continental nation. Transportation and communication innovations accelerated settlement. Goods and people moved along the rails and wagon trails, and ideas also moved along newly strung telegraph wires, in newspapers carried from place to place, and in the mails (R. White, 2011).

  • 3 Germinal works on settler colonialism include Wolfe; Byrd; Hoxie.

12As important as all these resources were to nation building, nothing mattered more than people. To do the job of unsettling the original inhabitants of the lands the United States claimed and domesticating those lands as American places, Americans and would-be Americans had to agree to go and live in those places. The prospects of the expanding nation were in the hands of fractious people with widely varied motives and means, facing unpredictable challenges. The area organized as Wyoming Territory was such a place. Expansionist Americans of the mid-nineteenth century called the effort to install loyal American farm families on Indigenous lands “progress,” or more bombastically, “Manifest Destiny.” We now call it settler colonialism.3

13On July 25, 1868, the federal act organizing the US Territory of Wyoming became law, anticipating the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad, then making its way along the southern edge of the territory toward a meeting with its transcontinental partner, the Central Pacific. As John A. Campbell, the first territorial governor, explained in his cheerfully imperialist inaugural message, “For the first time in the history of our country, the organization of a territorial government was made necessary by the building of a railroad. Heretofore the railroad had been the follower instead of the pioneer of civilization” (Larson, 1978 36).

14The people who came to Wyoming carried weighty cultural as well as physical baggage, including ideas about race and gender. Those ideas were both unstable and important in such a place, which presented plenty of opportunities for newcomers to wonder who they were and what they were doing. Eternally quarrelling among themselves, emigrants knew that the distant government had little power to enforce order in the territory. They acted in often confusing, poorly considered, and contradictory ways. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty had ceded most of the northern part of the territory to Native control, but white prospecting parties—protected by federal troops—repeatedly entered Lakota country, particularly in the Big Horn basin and the Black Hills. Further south, gold had been discovered along the Sweetwater River in the western part of Wyoming. Miners flocked to ramshackle camps at South Pass City, Atlantic City, and Miner’s Delight, sitting at the blurry border of the Shoshones’ Wind River Reservation, established by the Fort Bridger Treaty of July 3, 1868 (Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868). Fortune hunters constantly breached the reservation boundary and they wanted the government to send troops to protect them, even though they rebelled at attempts to keep them from encroaching on Indian lands.

15Coincidence, bad luck, and rumor combined with fear, misunderstanding, and malevolence to spark violence. Indians and whites attacked one another, whites (and a few African Americans) shot and stabbed each other, and it was all too easy to point the finger at almost anybody else. Long after and far from the places where the Civil War had been fought, Confederate die-hards, “Galvanized Yankees,” and Union stalwarts nursed raging grudges.

16Most emigrants were transient “white” men, working in the mines or on the railroad, unmarried or at least living as if they were single. They had no intention of staying in Wyoming after the work moved on, and they did not care about harmony with Natives, or with each other for that matter. They were not much interested in empire building. Many, in fact, were actively fleeing the forces of law and order. Policymakers considered them necessary but unreliable tools of conquest.

17A far smaller contingent of white male emigrants saw themselves as bearers of “civilization,” as actual or potential heads of white families sent to supplant Indigenous villages, establish farms, institute self-government, and permanently join the American republic. They were, according to the editors of the Sweetwater Mines newspaper, a “class of men […] who possessed sufficient energy and stamina to overcome the many obstacles found in their path. Upon men of this kind do we depend for the future development of this country” (Sweetwater Mines, May 27, 1868). These men believed that families were the key to domesticating occupied territory into a continuously American landscape of farms and towns and cities.

18At least in public, such men avowed a simple, sentimental, hierarchical, and highly idealized image of how those families would operate. Like middle-class Victorians across the country, Wyoming Victorians declared that men and women were fitted by nature for different but complementary “spheres” in life, with men restraining their base instincts in order to build civil society, using their superior intellect and strength. Women who accompanied such men to the mines were charged with serving and pleasing their husbands and fathers, nurturing and educating their children, and maintaining moral order in the household, the territory, and, more grandly, the nation. They were expected to serve as enthusiastic accomplices in the project of establishing white supremacy in an American empire (Welter 151-174; Kerber 9-49; Rupp 149).

19When they went to school and to church, when they read magazines, novels, and advice books, middle-class Americans absorbed lessons about how men and women were supposed to behave. The problem with lessons, of course, is that they are not always learned, and not always useful. However much a person might strive to embody the ideal type of American man or woman, pretty much everybody fell short in one way or another. Many were excluded by virtue of race or class or culture, or had little interest in aspiring to upright behavior. Pillars of the community got in fights and gambled away the rent money. Model mothers lost their tempers and screamed at their husbands and children, succumbed to crippling depression, begged to leave. People gossiped with neighbors, stopped off at the saloon, drowned their troubles in laudanum or rotgut whiskey. Drunken men, and occasionally, women, were a common sight in the streets of the Sweetwater settlements. The mining camps also attracted their share of prostitutes, women who made their living on men’s deviations from the path of righteous manliness. In such a dusty, cold, wind-scoured place, it was hard to be good, even for those who wanted to do so (Kerber; Butler; Goldman; Petrik 28-41).

  • 4 This count did not reflect Native population in the area.

20In the summer of 1868, thousands of people of variable virtue found their way to Wyoming, carting along their talents, hopes, and enterprise, as well as their foibles, fears, and shortcomings. Within two years, many had passed on through, but some remained, still hoping to find their fortune. According to the 1870 census, South Pass City, the largest of the three isolated settlements of the Sweetwater mining district, was home to a population of 460 souls, with men outnumbering women by a ratio of four to one (US Department of the Interior 372, 592; Wyoming Territory Manuscript Census).4 Along with the streets and the mines, places that traded in alcohol (seven retail liquor dealers, three breweries, and one liquor wholesaler in South Pass City alone) dominated social life. Chicago journalist James Chisholm, who spent a summer in the settlement, observed that “A vast amount of gold dust is ground in the whiskey mill” (Homsher 204), and judging from the dozens of advertisements in the territory’s newspapers, happy hour began at dawn. One bar owner insisted, “There is no better appetizer than one of [this establishment’s] cocktails taken before breakfast in the morning” (Sweetwater Mines, June 3, 1868).

21In such circumstances, what ought a morally upright woman to do? The few white, middle-class women who had landed in South Pass City were vastly outnumbered. Some, at least, tried to make their presence felt. Fourteen of them, who had hung on through the howling winter of 1868-1969, threw a Christmas party in the Sholes Exchange saloon, featuring a lavish spread of “pies, cakes, and confectionary […] turkeys, game, salads, and jellies,” not to mention plenty of champagne. The Sweetwater Mines reported that though the party went into the early morning hours, no one was drunk (Sweetwater Mines, December 30, 1868). The Mines used the presence of genteel ladies to promote colonization. “We have formed a nucleus of female society in our midst,” the editors wrote, “that may give an assurance to some families who expect to visit us next spring and summer, that the hardy pioneers of the Rocky Mountains still hold dear the principles and examples inculcated I their minds by their mothers and sisters in their far off eastern and western homes” (Sweetwater Mines, January 9, 1869).

22Some women, of course, rejected middle-class propriety. Sex workers plied their trade in the settlements; other working women moved between tough jobs to earn their keep. Some became notorious. Martha Jane Cannary, otherwise known as Calamity Jane, claimed to have scouted for the army, worked as a bullwhacker, and driven stage coaches. We know she did do some freighting, drank to excess, sometimes made a living selling sex, and often found it useful to wear men’s clothes. Somewhere along her picaresque trails, she made an appearance in South Pass City and may have provoked a comment in the Frontier Index, the press on wheels operated by virulently racist brothers Fred and Legh Freeman, Confederate veterans from Virginia who rode west with the Union Pacific. Faced with the rising call for votes for women, the Index observed, “You just as well set a woman upon a stage driver’s box, with a whip in hand, as to allow her at the ballot box with whisky in her head and oaths upon her lips” (Frontier Index, June 5, 1868; P. White; McLaird; Etulain).

23Other women were disqualified from “true womanhood” on racial grounds. Vicious sexism and ugly racism frequently went hand in hand, or perhaps fist in palm. The Frontier Index made racist and sexist invective its specialty. The Freemans’ Index reprinted stories from eastern newspapers, vilifying Black people and white Radical Republicans, and often reported on anti-Chinese activity in the West, while also missing no chance to malign Indigenous people or the government officials who favored any Indian policy short of extermination. All these purported enemies were, in the eyes of the Index, co-conspirators against white men’s liberty. The Index baldly championed a white man’s empire across the continent, extending the race politics of the Civil War era and expanding the geography of conflict over those politics. “As the emblem of American Liberty,” the Freeman brothers trumpeted from Green River, Wyoming, “THE FRONTIER INDEX is now perched upon the summit of the Rocky Mountains, flaps its wings over the Great West, and screams forth in thunder and lightning tones, the principles of an unterrified anti-Nigger, anti-Chinese, anti-Indian party—Masonic Democracy!!!!!!!” (Frontier Index, June 5, 1868).

24For many white Wyomingites, ideas about race and gender worked together. White women, acting under the authority of white men, were to be willing, better yet joyful, instruments of white empire. But upholding the privileges of race and the duties of true women on the Sweetwater could prove trying. Visiting the tiny village of Miner’s Delight, journalist James Chisholm befriended twenty-four-year-old Frances Gallagher, wife of an army major. Chisholm adored Mrs. Gallagher. “Apart from woman in the abstract, for whom I retain an unspeakable veneration, she must be a brave soul who, accustomed to the refinements of life, can voluntarily front the hardships and perils of a mining camp like this,” he observed (Homsher 80-81). Frances Gallagher did her best, keeping house and teaching school, but according to James Chisholm, her confidant, “She sometimes pines for home so pinefully that I get quite sympathetic on the subject” (Trevor 111-112).

25The Frontier Index had some advice for the likes of Frances Gallagher: “A modest woman must often neither see nor hear” (Frontier Index, March 24, 1868). Neither, according to some commentators, should good women be seen or heard. But women had plenty to say, both privately and publicly. In South Pass City, a housewife identified as “Mrs. Carr” sent her children to a local saloon to fetch their inebriated father, who replied that “he was too drunk to come home and if she wanted him to return home, they would have to come after him with a wheelbarrow. This they did” (Sherlock 44). “None but the brave deserve the fair,” said the Frontier Index. “And none but the brave can live with some of them” (Frontier Index, March 24, 1868).

26Other women promoted civic peace. Janet Sherlock Smith, whose descendants persisted in the South Pass area into the middle of the twentieth century, was the most successful of the town’s handful of businesswomen, keeping a lodging house and partnering with her husband in the mercantile store. She had already demonstrated remarkable hardiness, as the daughter of a Scottish Mormon family that had immigrated to the United States and walked most of the way to Utah, and over the decades she remained in the area, she would endure tragedy upon tragedy (Scharff, 2015 140-158). When a man shot and killed Janet’s brother, a mob gathered in the town’s main street to hang the killer without a trial. According to her grandson, Janet interceded “in her devout Christian and characteristically kind and sensible manner.” She told the crowd that she had already lost enough, without having the murderer’s blood on her hands, “and she knew that in living with his own conscience and Divine judgment, the man would receive his just punishment” (Sherlock 68-69).

27Empire builders celebrated women like Janet Sherlock Smith as shining examples of moral white womanhood, a kind of cultural property that made it possible to achieve the goal of settler colonialism, plunder Indian land, turn the terrain into US territory, and establish white supremacy. There was more than cloying sentiment involved when the Sweetwater Mines rehearsed the bromide: “The wife makes the home, and the home makes the man” (Sweetwater Mines, April 4, 1868). In Wyoming, making a home on the range meant dispossessing native peoples and suppressing or eliminating anyone who contested the claims of the white republic. White women were expected to do their part, even as they were supposed to confine themselves to the household and defer to their husbands. Homilies and clichés about woman’s place barely masked the fear that such women might go too far in exerting their influence—might, like an angry wife with a wheelbarrow, turn on their supposed protectors and providers. White women were, in short, both necessary partners and somewhat unreliable allies in the enterprise of conquest. The Mines observed, “A cynical journalist says the reason so many marriages occur immediately after a war, is that bachelors become so accustomed to strife that they learn to like it, and after the return of peace, they enlist in matrimony as the next thing to war” (Sweetwater Mines, April 4, 1868).

28But why should we expect stability at the edge of a nation recently ripped apart and only beginning to piece itself together? In 1868, the southeastern part of the nation was divided into military districts that collapsed the boundaries of states that had very recently, and at unfathomable human and financial cost, insisted on their sovereign rights. Uniformed officers governed those districts, ruling by right of appointment from Washington, exactly as did the executive and judiciary officials of Wyoming Territory. The President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, embodied both kinds of authority, and it was he who appointed Wyoming’s first governor, John A. Campbell of Ohio, along with its secretary, Edward M. Lee of Connecticut, senior territorial judge John W. Kingman of New Hampshire, and US marshal Church Howe of Massachusetts, Republicans all. All four men embraced the Republican agenda, and both Campbell and Lee had risen to the rank of brigadier general in the Union Army. These war-scarred idealists meant to put Wyoming at the front of the march toward equality and justice, by honoring treaty obligations, enforcing African American male suffrage, and when the time came, supporting women’s voting rights. They were also entirely dedicated to the project of expropriating Native land for white settlement and American empire.

29While such federal appointees possessed some measure of idealism about their trek to the West, they were in the minority among white men in Wyoming. After all, who had better reason to head west, than those who had lost most in the war, northern “Copperheads,” and residents of the border states and the former Confederacy? From May 1868, as the presidential election approached, Wyoming politics got truly ugly. The Frontier Index predicted that a Grant victory would mean race war, with Grant and his supporters thwarting “conservative white men” and planning to “Africanise and Indianise our whole mongrel region.” The Index editors were terrified of the Chinese immigrants who comprised such a substantial part of the labor force for the Central Pacific Railroad, then making its way across the west, shrieking that “Four hundred millions of Chinamen [will be] ‘knocking at our national door.’ […] Our white laborers and their wives and children will suffer for bread. Americans you will have to subsist (not live) on rats and rice and drink tea made from the grounds emptied from Chinamen’s teapots […]. The war of races will have commenced.” And just to underline the point, the Index offered a battle cry: “Our watchword will be Revolution or Death! Up with white men, down with the devil!” (Frontier Index, August 18, 1868).

30The Freeman brothers drew on their experience as southern secessionists in the editorial columns of their Frontier Index, declaring that “The clouds of revolution are lowering. On with it! Off with the crown of the military dictator—Grant!” But they put a distinctly western expansionist spin on their racist rage. For them, the chief threat to white supremacy now came not from a potentially revolutionary enslaved labor force, but from the original inhabitants of lands they hoped to seize. They predicted that Grant would send federal appointees who would be soft on the Indian “problem,” would give the Indians “full rations as long as they carry on a vigorous and successful war upon the whites […]” (Frontier Index, April 21, 1868).

31A group of seventeen men in South Pass City, including a Virginian and Union veteran named William H. Bright, took a similar position, in terms slightly less unhinged. They signed a circular announcing a mass meeting of Democrats, “all good and true men, who repudiate the Reconstruction policy of congress, negro [sic] suffrage, and the principles espoused by the Radical Republican Party, and who are in favor of equal and exact justice to all sections of the union” (Frontier Index, May 30, 1868).

32Since they resided in a territory rather than a state, Wyoming voters could not cast ballots in the presidential election. But on September 2, 1869, they had their chance to vote for territorial legislators and a nonvoting delegate to the US Congress. That electorate included many white men who vehemently opposed African American voting rights, some who supported the extension of the franchise to formerly enslaved men, and some who were there to claim the right to vote for the first time. As some fifteen or twenty African American voters went to the polls in South Pass City, a white mob determined to keep them from exercising their rights. Justice John Kingman described the scene:

At South Pass City some drunken fellows with large knives and loaded revolvers swaggered around the polls, and swore that no Negro should vote […]. When one man remarked quietly that he thought the Negroes had as good a right to vote as any of them had, he was immediately knocked down, jumped on, kicked, and pounded without mercy and would have been killed had not his friends rushed into the brutal crowd and dragged him out, bloody and insensible. There were quite a number of colored men who wanted to vote, but did not dare approach the polls until the United States Marshal, himself at their head and with a revolver in hand, escorted them through the crowd, saying he would shoot the first man that interfered with them. There was much quarreling and tumult, but the Negroes voted. (Catt and Shuler 76)

That year, the Democratic Party, which stood for white supremacy and against recognition of the rights of nonwhite people, swept the territorial elections. Democrat William Bright was elected to the territorial council from South Pass City as a representative of that viewpoint. Republican Governor John Campbell had to mediate between white emigrants who believed Indians had no claim to land, liberty, or life, and Indigenous people whose sovereignty, territory, and treaty rights were under threat and who regarded the Americans with distrust and disillusionment, if not rage and hatred. Though Campbell and his allies meant to enforce treaty obligations, they could not rely on the remote and corrupt federal government to back them up. Pleading with Washington for support, Campbell knew he was in a fix. “I believe it to be unwise and wrong to insist of a faithful obeisance of the Treaty stipulations on the part of the Indians without a corresponding faithfulness on our part,” Campbell wrote to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ely S. Parker, after a disheartening visit to the Shoshone agency at Wind River (Campbell).

  • 5 See also Hardaway. On miscegenation law more generally, see Pascoe, 2010.

33Clearly, the stage was set for clashes between the Republican governor and the Democratic legislature when lawmakers convened in November, 1869. As historian T.A. Larson pointed out, Campbell vetoed a number of bills sent to him by the legislature, which in turn overrode his vetoes (Larson, 1978 75-76). One such bill was a measure prohibiting “intermarriage between white persons and those of Negro or Mongolian blood” (House Journal 210), a measure in line with the Democrats’ determination to prevent “mongrelization” by any means necessary. Campbell, however, declared that he was not sure “how far it may be expedient or well to attempt to govern social life and taste by legislative prohibitions” (262). But, he reasoned, for those who claimed to desire to prevent persons of different races from marrying, the bill as passed did not go far enough. It did not prohibit intermarriage between different kinds of nonwhite people, and the bill made no provision “to restrict the intermingling of the white race or any other race with the American race,” by which last he meant Indigenous people (Council Journal 79). Given the skewed sex ratio among emigrants and the presence of Indian communities in the territory, Campbell reasoned that, “there have been and probably will be more marriages in this territory between Indians and whites, than between person of all other races combined” (167)5.

  • 6 The question of which women were granted suffrage—Chinese or Mexican immigrant women? Indigenous wo (...)

34While Democrats and Republicans might differ on the details, whatever side they had taken during the war and whatever views they held toward the federal government, most emigrants agreed that by right and by might, the territory belonged to the United States, that the permanent presence of white American families signified destiny fulfilled and progress on the way. They further believed that Indian peoples ought to be defeated, displaced, confined, or eliminated. This fractious consensus led, in 1869, to a moment of unlikely agreement between antagonists, between most of the Democrats in the legislature and the Republican governor. And at that moment, in the effort to establish white supremacy where it had never been and did not exist, some women won the right to vote.6

35Just as the politics of Black citizenship spanned the Civil War, so did the struggle for women’s rights (Tetrault, 2014). Before Reconstruction, the movements for the abolition of slavery and emancipation of women often twined together, though most male abolitionists were reluctant to embrace women’s struggle for full citizenship (Quanquin). But by the time Wyoming Territory was established, the two movements had parted company. Onetime allies of veteran abolitionist crusaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had urged the women to postpone their own agenda, assuring them that their time would come, eventually. Radical Republican men were focused on full rights for African American men; woman suffrage struck some as a marginal matter, others as too extreme, and still others as a bad idea altogether (DuBois, 1978).

  • 7 The historiography of the Black freedom struggle is beyond the scope of this essay, but for a fine (...)

36Anthony and Stanton, stung by the rejection of their cause and steeped, after all, in the American creed of white supremacy, adopted a new, racist tactic. They took to the lecture circuit to make the case for woman suffrage on the basis of race. Before the war, like most advocates of votes for women, they had insisted that as human beings and citizens, women deserved equal rights with men. But now they changed tactics and emphasized the supposed special qualities of white women versus all men. They argued that white women were at least as entitled to the vote as Black men, since they had the advantages of better educational opportunities and had an innate moral superiority not only to African American men, but to all males.7

37The mails on the rails brought such ideas (including copies of Anthony and Stanton’s newspaper, The Revolution) to Wyoming Territory, and local newspapers devoted buckets of ink to the national movement in 1868 and 1869. The Frontier Index, in an about-face from its earlier opposition to woman suffrage, avowed its approval of The Revolution’s new racist argument and cheered: “Hip! hip! hip! hurrah for the telling efforts of the Revolution. God bless the ladies, may their noble, patriotic, honest influence bring our poor distracted country back to peace and white prosperity, and crown their own adorable sex with all the rights, immunities, privileges and marked honors the earth can bestow upon merit, purity, and shining Christianity” (Frontier Index, March 6, 1868).

38The movement also reached Cheyenne in 1869 in the persons of two members of Anthony and Stanton’s National Woman Suffrage Association. Missourian Redelia Bates and the far better-known Anna Dickinson had taken up the taxing but increasingly common career for women as itinerant lecturers, making a living and attempting to reach new audiences in seemingly unpromising places like Wyoming Territory (Frontier Index, March 6, March 24, June 5, November 13, 1868; Sweetwater Mines, December 2, December 5, December 23, 1868; Cheyenne Leader, November 22, November 24, December 2, December 10, 1869; Wyoming Tribune, December 4, 1869; Larson, 1953 74-79; Larson, 1972; Larson, 1978 81; Edwards).

39Some Wyomingites were receptive to the message, including the newly elected member of the territorial council, William H. Bright. Bright was a Democrat and a Mason, a popular man with his fellows. He had come to South Pass City with his wife and baby son, and though he represented the kind of family man who might settle the terrain in the name of empire and civilization, he still struggled to make a living as a miner and saloonkeeper. When he announced, on November 12, 1869, that he intended to introduce a bill for woman suffrage, at least some of his fellow legislators were sure he was joking (Anthony et al., vol. 3 730).

40Others assumed that his wife had put him up to the task. This Victorian couple worked to take their manliness and womanliness seriously, and if they sometimes fell short of the ideal, it was not for lack of trying. A woman like Julia Bright, who believed in both woman suffrage and feminine deference, would not have dreamed of going public with her views. But she might well have pressed her ideas on her husband in private. The Republican Justice John Kingman recalled later that Bright “did his wife’s bidding” and that Bright’s “character was not above reproach, but he had an excellent, well-informed wife and he was a kind, indulgent husband. In fact, he venerated his wife and submitted to her judgment and influence more willingly than one could have supposed, and she was in favor of woman suffrage” (Anthony et al., vol. 3 730).

41Kingman was a supporter of the measure, but even the leader of the legislative opposition, South Pass City representative Ben Sheeks, agreed that Julia Bright had manipulated her husband into introducing the measure. “Mrs. Bright,” Sheeks wrote to historian Grace Raymond Hebard,

was a very womanly suffragist, and I always understood and still believe that it was through her influence that the bill was introduced. 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. (Sheeks)

Whatever Bright’s motives, his fellow Democrats had any number of reasons to vote for the measure. Some may well have thought he was not in earnest. Some may have wanted to embarrass Governor Campbell, whom they thought would surely be compelled to veto the measure. Some likely thought that passing such an unconventional law would be good publicity for the territory, possibly inspiring more white women to move west. And some may have believed that white women would vote their racial interests, and thus support the Democratic Party. “Womanly” suffragists like Julia Bright, content to raise her baby and leave public business to her husband, undermined the argument that the vote would turn all women into Calamity Janes. And who is to know whether some of those legislators, on the morning of the vote, had done as newspaper advertisements urged them to do and stopped off for a refreshing cocktail or two on the way to work?

42Whatever their inclinations, territorial legislators agreed on the benefits of attracting more white women settlers whose presence would help to cement the permanence of American empire. With that purpose in mind and without much debate, Wyoming’s first legislature passed a whole slate of women’s rights measures, including laws giving married women control over their property and earnings, and mandating equal pay for women teachers. By 1869, teaching school had become a female-dominated profession, so the latter law was a bid to recruit women workers (Council Journal 54, 66, 110, 121-123, 141, 155, 158, 188). But advocates touted the property law as particularly important to the enterprise of empire-building, “eminently just,” according to the Cheyenne Leader, and “one of those rights which should be vouchsafed to women as protection from shiftless and improvident husbands. It is perhaps more necessary in this Territory than in a more settled state of society in the East. Men risk oftener their means in venturesome speculation than elsewhere” (Cheyenne Leader, November 10, 1869).

43As it happened, one Democrat, the foremost opponent of the women’s suffrage bill, unmasked the white supremacist assumptions behind the measure. In the legislative debate, Ben Sheeks mocked advocates by offering an amendment adding the phrase “all colored women and squaws” to the ranks of those to be enfranchised (Larson, 1978 78-83; Scharff, 2015 140-158). But Sheeks’s amendment failed and Bright’s bill passed both houses, 7-4 with one abstention in the House, and 6-2 with one absent in the Council. Now it was up to Governor Campbell, who signed the bill on December 10, 1869. By the consent of a mere fourteen men, voting rights for women—at least, some women—became law in Wyoming Territory. Radical Republicans among its supporters sought to promote the egalitarian potential of the law rather than the white supremacist intent of its originator. Territorial Secretary Edward M. Lee predicted that women would now exercise the same “civilizing influence” on politics as they had at home. Wyoming had been “placed far in advance of every other political community on the subject of human rights,” he wrote in the Wyoming Tribune.

That the policy of suffrage without regard to race or sex will ultimately be adopted by the entire nation may be regarded as no longer a matter of doubt, and to Wyoming belongs the proud privilege of pioneership in this grand modern reform […]. Let fogyism, prejudice and caste find refuge among the ghouls of darkness and the dead past. Among the Rocky Mountains, seeking to establish an empire, we have inaugurated for the first time in history complete civil and political equality. (Wyoming Tribune, December 18, 1869)

Lee’s Republican colleague, Judge John Kingman, knew that the future of “complete civil and political equality” was tenuous at best. He worried that when Wyoming women cast their ballots for the first time, in 1870, resistant Southerners and Northern “Copperheads” might make trouble. He was especially nervous when four Black women, employed as servants in Cheyenne hotels, went to vote. However, he reported, “As they went up to the polls the crowd quietly parted; they voted and returned to the carriage without a word said. Then I breathed freely; I knew that all was safe” (Scharff, 2003 90).

44Safe for the moment, perhaps. The larger history of what happened after the law was passed is a story for another time, though a few events underline the significance of settler colonialism and empire to this excursion in liberty. As the railroad crews left the territory and the mining boom busted, those who never meant to stay in Wyoming moved on. In 1871, when the legislature met again, the only man to return was Ben Sheeks. He led a successful campaign for a bill to repeal woman suffrage in Wyoming Territory, but Governor Campbell understood the historical significance of what Wyoming had done. Campbell vetoed the repeal. In his veto message, Campbell cited, “certain universally admitted principles […] which through the whole course of our national history have been powerfully and beneficially operative in making our institutions more and more popular, in framing laws more and more just.” Campbell insisted that all citizens had a right to be represented in government and to be equal before the law. Echoing but going far beyond Locke and Jefferson, Campbell reasoned that women’s voting rights embodied further fulfillment of the American ideal of “a government which ‘derives all its just powers from the consent of the governed.’” And in phrases frankly borrowed from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Campbell insisted that “a regard for the genius of our institutions—for the fundamental principles of American autonomy—and for the immutable principles of right and justice, will not permit me to sanction this change” (House Journal 112-118).

45But in Campbell’s stirring invocation of the long battle for ever-expanding liberty, there was also a strong nod to empire. Those who wanted to take the vote from women would “remand woman to that condition of tutelage and dependence which is her lot in all barbarous and uncivilized countries, and out of which she has been for eighteen centuries gradually but slowly emerging in all nations that have been blessed by the benign rays of a christian civilization” (House Journal 112-118).

46Thus even the most ardent supporter of expanding liberty planted his banner in the mythic rationale for colonization and expropriation. By the light of such stirring, disturbing folktales are families and communities dispossessed, territories invaded and settled, liberties secured and smashed, fragile rights won through wrongs.

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1 This essay has its roots in my chapter “Empire, Liberty, and Legend: Woman Suffrage in Wyoming” (Scharff, 2015). The first analysis of the politics of woman suffrage in the period is Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869 (DuBois, 1978).

2 See West; Richardson. Feminist scholars have explored the gendered, racial, and imperial politics of empire. See, for example, Stoler, 1989; 1991; Mohanty et. al.; Burton. Scholars of race also help us see Wyoming in a new light: see Pascoe, 1990; Saxton.

3 Germinal works on settler colonialism include Wolfe; Byrd; Hoxie.

4 This count did not reflect Native population in the area.

5 See also Hardaway. On miscegenation law more generally, see Pascoe, 2010.

6 The question of which women were granted suffrage—Chinese or Mexican immigrant women? Indigenous women?—was as yet unresolved. As Lisa Tetrault has pointed out, the US Constitution contains no affirmative right to vote. Instead, even the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments prohibit states from denying the right to vote on the basis of particular factors, leaving open the possibility for courts, at any time, to determine that a state law, however restrictive or arbitrary, may not, for whatever reason, prevent a citizen from voting. Thus the rights of voters have been and may continue to be eroded by state actions sanctioned by courts unfriendly to the rights of particular constituents. As a result, the question of which women’s voting rights are protected remains contested to this day (Tetrault, 2019).

7 The historiography of the Black freedom struggle is beyond the scope of this essay, but for a fine recent study of the former, see Kantrowitz. The woman suffrage movement has an equally huge historiography, beginning with the multivolume narrative by Anthony et. al., History of Woman Suffrage. Still useful, though usefully critiqued and revised, is Eleanor Flexner’s pioneering Century of Struggle. For more recent surveys of the topic, see Cott; DuBois, 2020. Jones, Tetrault (2014), and others have pointed out the ways in which white women voting rights activists created their own history and mythology, leaving out activists of color, particularly Black women. On women of color in the early twentieth-century women’s voting rights movement, see Cahill.

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Virginia Scharff, « Race, Gender, and Empire: The Strange Career of Women’s Voting Rights in Wyoming »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Virginia Scharff

University of New Mexico

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