Wyoming: A Center for Women’s Equality? Essay

The gold rush of the 19th century brought many people to Wyoming on their travels on the Oregon Trail. Ft. Laramie was the most important military post in the west at the time. It was a safe haven for gold seekers, a stop on the pony express, and an important for defending against wars with the Plains Indians. The people of Wyoming pride themselves on their Old West Heritage. According to Larson the people of Wyoming, “personify self reliance, independence, rugged individualism, and free enterprise.” Simple government, a balanced budget, and low tax rates are the economic priorities for the small population of Wyoming. The people of Wyoming understand the rough landscape and climate is not meant for everyone. The five people per square mile in Wyoming make it 49th in population density behind Alaska and last in overall population. The principle of equality has been prevalent in legislative actions and governing documents. “The Equality State” was the first state to give women suffrage, the right to serve on juries, and have a female governor.

In the 19th century there was a regional and economic party split. The north and large economic interests supported the Republicans, while the south and Union pacific railway workers supported the Democrats. From 1869 to 1880 eight of Wyoming’s territorial governors were Republican and seventeen of thirty state governors have been Republican. Of the 12 Democrat governors, 5 of them held office after 1959. Only three Republican governors have held office that time span. Other than the governor, the four other positions in the executive branch are currently occupied by Republicans. Both state houses are dominated by Republicans, 20 to 10 in the Senate and 45 to 15 in the House. In federal elections Republicans fare very well. No Democrat has gone to the US House from Wyoming since 1976 and the Senate since 1970. The last Democrat to receive Wyoming’s three electoral votes was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Of the 23 counties only 5 have ever chosen a Democratic candidate in the past 40 years. Albany County is the only area that can be considered Democratic.

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The 10 years after the depression were the only years of which the Democratic Party had any success in Wyoming. The depression and tremendous drought in the early part of the 1930’s forced Wyoming to accept $626 per person from the federal government in the years 1933-1939. Other than Nevada and Montana, Wyoming collected more federal dollars per capita than any other state in the nation.7During this time the Democrats reached their summit of popularity. 1934-1936 are the only years which the Democrats have held the governorship, a majority in congress, the US rep, and a Senator at the same time. This trend of Democrats in power soon died out. By 1942 all statewide offices had gone back to the Republicans along with the majority in both state houses. Since 1944, Wyoming has only voted for 2 Democratic Presidential candidates. Currently 62.9% of registered voters are Republican and only 27.7% are Democrats. 88.9% of the state is white and only 6.4% of the state is Hispanic. The homogeny of the state is apparent when one looks at those numbers.

In 1869 Wyoming became the first territory in the world to give women suffrage and has been officially nicknamed “The Equality State”. Mrs. Esther Morris became the first woman judge in the country when she was given the title of justice of the peace. The first woman governor was elected to office was in Wyoming as well. Wyoming has a history of firsts for women in politics which is well documented in history books and has given the state a reputation for being a leader in the women’s suffrage and rights movements. On the surface Wyoming appears as if it has set a standard for equality of women; however Wyoming women have not received treatment any differently than other states in the nation. If one looks at the origins of women’s suffrage in Wyoming; justice for women was not the primary or secondary motivation. Granting rights to women was not to aid them; but for men’s political agendas and popularity. This trend has echoed throughout history. Wyoming largely under represents women compared to the leading states in the nation and in the west; so why then is it named the Equality State?

In December of 1869 Wyoming gave women the right vote and hold public office. William H. Bright was the man who introduced the bill for suffrage in Wyoming; yet had no formal education and did not remember where he learned reading and writing. Bright felt women had as much of a right to vote as blacks and found the bill, as many other legislators did, humorous. The Democratic legislator passed the bill in the 9 member Senate and the 12 member House by a 6 to 2 and a 7 to 4 margin in an attempt to belittle the veto happy governor. 1Governor John A. Campbell was a Republican and had vetoed many bills passed by the legislature. Although many of his vetoes were overturned by a 2/3 vote in the house; the legislature was frustrated. The governor was not particularly for suffrage; yet his secretary from Connecticut, Edward Lee, was. He encouraged the governor to not veto the bill on the basis that if the bill was passed it would attract more people to the territory. The governor believed the natural resources in Wyoming would make it a prosperous place, all it needed was people. When the bill was not vetoed the legislature and the east coast were shocked. In 1869 women in Wyoming did not speak in public and had no suffrage organizations. It was clear that women of the territory were not activists for equality.

Population was a problem in Wyoming at the time. In 1868 the transcontinental railroad was completed and in the following year Wyoming’s population dropped from 16,000 to 8,014. Wyoming needed to attract more settlers, so the Wyoming legislature used suffrage as a form of free advertising to attract women to their territory. When word of women’s suffrage in Wyoming made it to the east Susan B. Anthony went to Wyoming in 1871 and proclaimed, “Wyoming is the first place on God’s green earth which can consistently claim to be the land of the Free.” Suffragists began to frequent Wyoming to praise their legislation, but found holes in the supposed equal rights of women. Men out numbered men six to one in Wyoming and legislators did not consult the public before passing the bill. Men of Wyoming tended to be young and single.

Bachelors at the time out numbered married men and some believe women’s suffrage was a ploy to get more votes for the Republicans. As women activists came to the territory it became apparent men saw no equality between men and women. Newspapers would describe woman’s speeches and presentation not by what they had said; but by how attractive the women were. Nathan A. Baker of the Cheyenne Leader described 26 year old Anna Dickinson’s speech in Cheyenne on September 24 1869 as, “in person she is below medium height, and well formed; her face is rather oval shaped.” He later described forty-five year old Anthony as “the old maid whom celibacy has dried and blasted and mildewed, until nothing is left but a half crazy virago.” J.H. Beadle, the author of Western Wilds and the Men who Redeem Them, found one fifth of the women in Wyoming to be prostitutes.

Women’s effects on Wyoming’s government were not completely unnoticed. Many women did vote in 1870. It is unclear whether their presences affected the outcome of an election; however observers claim women strongly supported the Republicans. Evidence of this was the unsuccessful attempt of Democrats in the legislature the following year to appeal women’s suffrage. Elections prior to 1870 in Wyoming were said to be wild and raucous. Women’s participation was said to prevent men from over drinking and cause considerably less violent behavior at the polls. Women’s presence on juries affected the judicial system. Men saw positions on juries as opportunities to socialize. Drinking and card playing was not an uncommon practice in jury deliberations. Women on the other hand took the process more seriously and were known to be harsher on criminals than men. Women’s presence on juries ended in 1871 when a judge ruled allowing women to vote did not mean they had the right to serve on juries. Women of Wyoming did not complain and were not called to serve on juries again until 1950. Needless to say gender equality in Wyoming did not originate in moral principles. Its progression moved incredibly slowly; much to the chagrin of women’s rights movements.

The entire nation viewed women’s suffrage in Wyoming as an experiment similar to those in Washington, Utah, and Colorado. Many men in Wyoming originally believed women voters were corrupt and the nature of politics would taint their innocent minds. By 1889 this had changed. Men believed women bettered the atmosphere at the polls; however they were not fit for office. In times of emergency women were not allowed to vote either, as in the case of the constitutional convention of 1889. Women were not represented in the constitutional convention. It was clear statehood was more important to men than women’s suffrage. If it was not for two men elected to the convention who refused to allow the electors to vote on the article of women’s suffrage, it would have been more than likely the convention would not have added women’s voting in the constitution. The two main problems with Wyoming according the US House were low populations and women’s voting rights. If the House had not been dominated by Republicans and a blatant overestimate of the population, Wyoming would not have received statehood and more than likely would be part of Colorado.

In 1869, along with voting rights, women were permitted to hold public office. Esther Morris was first woman to hold public office as justice of the peace in 1870. She served for only eight and a half months and saw 26 small cases in South Pass city, population 460. Her bid for reelection was to no avail because no political party would endorse her. Wyoming boasts to have elected the first woman governor, although if it were not for the timely death of their governor and a speed inauguration, Miriam Ferguson of Texas would have taken the honors. Mrs. Nellie Taylor Ross’ husband William was elected Governor and tragically died on October 2, 1924 in the middle of his term17. Mrs. Ross was then elected in November without campaigning. Mrs. Ross’, the only female governor in Wyoming history, and Mrs. Morris had no interest in women’s rights prior to holding government positions and were seen merely as figure heads. Equal rights were an advertising statement for the state. Wyoming quickly put “Equal Rights” on the state seal when “The Equality State” was born on July 10, 1890

Women in Wyoming show up to the polls. According to the institute for women, from 1998-2002 68.2% of Wyoming women were registered voters and 60.3% of registered women voted, 13th and 4th in the nation from 1998-2002. Wyoming however does not represent their equality when it comes to electing officials. Wyoming did not put a woman into the state legislature until 1915, after the second third and, forth states that allowed women to vote, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho.20 In 2000, only 20.4% of Wyoming congressmen, state and federal, were women. In the nation 21.6% of congressmen were women. That same year Wyoming had smaller percentages of female legislatures than Washington 39.2%, Nevada 35.8%, Montana 24.1%, Idaho23.9%, Colorado 31.5%, Arizona 32.7%, Oregon 28.8%, and California 30.5%.21 Until 1995 Wyoming had not elected a woman into US Congress. Given the lack of house seats Wyoming posses this is understandable for a state that is not a leader in women’s rights; yet of the seven states with three electoral votes, Wyoming was the fifth to elect a woman to congress. Delaware and Vermont have yet to do so.22 Twenty-two states have elected female Senators, including California and Washington. If Wyoming still considers itself a leader in equality amongst the sexes as their nickname and state seal suggest, their citizens are not proving it at the voting booths. Women make up over half of the state; yet have considerably less representation.

Wyoming does have a reputation for electing women to statewide offices. They currently have two women in the executive cabinet out of five positions. 21 states, including Wyoming, have elected women to governor; however Mrs. Ross was elected in a special circumstance and acted a figure head. Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Montana, and Utah have had women as governors. Wyoming has not had a female governor since Mrs. Ross. Wyoming has never had a female Lt. Governor unlike 33 other states, including Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Montana, and Utah.

In conclusion Wyoming has elected many women as statewide officials, but has never elected a woman to the two highest positions without special circumstances. Women have been grossly underrepresented in federal offices, in addition to the state congress. The Wyoming legislature currently has 25 men and 5 women in the Senate and 49 men and 11 women in the House; both percentages are below the national averages of 20.8% and 23%.27 The origins of the women’s movement in Wyoming were laced with scandal. The Equality State has not held up to its 19th century reputations of being a large supporter of women’s rights. While women have been elected to some of the smaller positions in the executive branch, Wyoming has yet to see a woman as a Senator or even and influential Governor. Women in Wyoming have received comforts that many states, especially southern, do not have; however they have not led the way as their name claims. According to the Statues of women in the States-2002 Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington, Alaska, and Maine are the best place for women to live.

The Campbell school district vs. Wyoming decision of 1995 declared Wyoming education spending unconstitutional. The system allowed smaller schools to receive more money than larger schools. On June 8, 1998 Wyoming created a system to test schools and school districts to determine if they were meeting standards of the state and districts. Wyoming Comprehensive Assessment System (WyCAS) was aimed at finding students who did not reach standards set by local districts and accessing schools and districts based on state standards. The state signed a contract for $1.8 million, about .3% of the education budget, and hired a company in Dover Delaware to create a standardized test directed at evaluating students in the 4th, 8th and 11th grades. There are three sections to the test, reading, writing, and mathematics. Measured Progress works with 16 states including Colorado, Montana, and Utah.

The idea of WyCAS took eighteen months of discussion between state and local school officials, community college and university personal, and business representatives to emerge. It is designed to test all Wyoming students and is given to 21,000 students a year. The test is completely designed by Measured Progress. 48 states have required statewide assessments of students and in 49 students have to live up to local standards. Fifty percent of states include all students in testing, even those with learning difficulties. Wyoming in the creation of their testing strategies wanted to include state assessments, local set benchmarks of standards, and to create a test all students of all levels of learning could take. There are six principles supported by WyCAS are as according WyCAS implementation guide, “Wycas must account for the performance and progress of ALL Wyoming students.

The performance and progress of ALL students must be considered when education policy decisions are made. ALL students must be challenged to higher levels of achievement. ALL students must have the opportunity to learn the content necessary to meet the Wyoming state standards. Wyoming standards are expanded for a small group of students with significant disabilities. Standards, assessments, curriculum and instruction must be aligned for ALL students.” This solution came from the multitude of other states that have implemented testing. The opposition to the bill criticized the minimum competency nature of them. Many believe this does not help students, but encourage them to drop out of school in order not to face the embarrassment of being “incompetent.” Focusing the curriculum on the test was a worry. This would limit the amount students who were not below average were learning. The main problem with WyCAS was money. Wyoming politician do not like to spend money. The reason this bill passed is no one in the legislature could craft a more fiscally responsible model.

This plan well represents the demographics of the State. The state has a very homogenous populations and the encouragement for all to take one test represents that. A test such as that could never be taken in state such as New York because the levels of education vary so drastically. Students in Wyoming are mostly white and mostly from the same type of setting. The plan also shows Wyoming’s lack of desire to spend. This is a very cheap way to determine the problems in specific areas. Dividing the test into three parts also specifies what needs each particular school needs. The problem that Wyoming faced is a clear indicator of unequal distribution of wealth in the state. 29.2% of households make between $15 and $35 thousand a year and 29.1% make over $50 thousand a year.35 Schools in wealthier areas were receiving more funding than others. Making everyone in the state take the test does show the equality that Wyoming prides itself on. The creation of a system where no one is excluded and the end result is to maximize benefits for all goes right along with their ideology.

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University of Minnesota, WyCAS-Alt Implementation Guide, http://www.measuredprogress.org/wycas/AltAssess/AltImplementation/AltImplementation.htm, (Accessed: April 26, 2004)

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35 Michael Barone, The Almanac of American Politics 2004, (Washington DC: National Journal Groups, 2003) p. 1761