2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the passage of Wyoming’s woman suffrage law. Wyoming’s women were voting and holding public office decades before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920. Indeed, the successful implementation of woman suffrage in Wyoming and other western states was critical to the nationwide success of the women’s movement for voting rights. By empowering its women, Wyoming was essentially conducting a social experiment – one that was closely watched by both supporters and opponents of suffrage. And, the experiment proved successful – western women voted and held public office, proving that woman suffrage could work.
And yet, while the story of the passage of Wyoming’s suffrage bill has been told many times, there is still much about this suffrage history that we do not know. In particular, we do not fully understand the ways in which the right to vote and hold office impacted the lives of ordinary Wyoming women, or their impact on the history of the state. If we want to have an accurate understanding of how women got the vote and what they did with it, we need to tell those women’s stories.
But this is not always easy to do. One of the challenges of writing the history of women in the nineteenth century is finding sources. When a historian sits down to write a political history of the nineteenth or early twentieth century, men dominate the historical record. Men show up in many places in the sources – in administrative government documents, in proceedings of legislatures and in newspaper reports. But because this is an era in which it was generally not “respectable” for women to operate in the public sphere, there is rarely a public record of women’s activities. Women were largely excluded from power and from public life, and so women’s voices are usually left out of these types of sources. And even women who were involved with politics or activism often considered it unwomanly to publicize their activities.
Accordingly, histories of woman suffrage in Wyoming often focus on the men who were involved in passing and implementing the bill. And certainly these men are important – without their actions, women’s suffrage could never have come to Wyoming. But at the same time, their story is not the full story.
Finding out what the women were doing and thinking requires a fair amount of detective work. Fortunately, the American Heritage Center has many archival materials related to Wyoming women that can help us to understand the nuances and complexities of the period. The lack of public records created by or about women in this era means that scholars must often rely on private documents such as letters, diaries, family histories and family photographs in order to understand the lives and motivations of women. Fortunately, the AHC has several rich collections that shed light on important political women. Supported by a research grant from the AHC, I was able to spend some of the summer of 2019 digging through some of the rich and interesting materials held in these collections.
One of the most important collections is the letters of Amalia Post. Post was a vocal advocate for women’s rights. In 1870, the first year in which women had the vote, Post was one of two women who served on the Laramie County Republican Central Committee. That committee nominated two women for office in the September 1870 election. Neither woman won her race, but both secured more than 40% of the vote. Post also served on one of the first juries to include women, and when the territorial legislature attempted to repeal suffrage in 1871, Post lobbied the governor to save it. Post also met national leaders of the suffrage movement and was named a Lifetime Vice President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Without the advocacy of women like Post, woman suffrage in Wyoming might have fizzled out or been repealed. But she took action to see that it was secure and was enacted in practice as well as in law.
The AHC also holds the files of Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard. Hebard was deeply influential in the development of the University of Wyoming and served the institution for more than forty-five years in a variety of roles. She was also a member of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. She recognized that Wyoming had played a unique and important role in the women’s rights movement, and she attempted to preserve and document that history. Hebard’s own writings on the topic have been debunked by more recent scholars, but nevertheless, her files still serve as valuable sources. Hebard had connections in every part of the state, and she gathered information on women’s political history from a vast network of correspondents. She and her students clipped newspapers, preserved documents, and gathered primary accounts related to women who served in elected office. Dr. Hebard also corresponded with national suffrage leaders, and these letters provide insight into the role Wyoming played in the national movement.
And finally, the AHC also preserves records of women who were active in early Wyoming politics. Wyoming’s suffrage law granted not only the right to vote but also to hold office. One woman who pioneered in this area was Mary Bellamy, whose papers are held at AHC. Bellamy was elected Superintendent of Schools in Albany County in 1902. In 1910 she became the first woman elected to the Wyoming State Legislature, serving in the 1911 session. Bellamy was Wyoming’s representative in Washington D.C. during the campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment. The AHC houses collections related to all of these activities.
This is just a small sampling of the many rich women’s sources available from the AHC. There is still much to be learned about the women who voted and served in office in the early days of the Equality State.
Blog contribution by Jennifer Helton, Assistant Professor of History at Ohlone College. Helton was a 2019 AHC Travel Grant recipient and will be presenting as part of the Women’s Suffrage Symposium at the University of Wyoming Nov. 7 – 8.
For more information on Women’s Suffrage in Wyoming, check out the Wyoming State Libraries Women’s Suffrage in Wyoming Libguide.