For the first time in the world, in 1869, a legislature gave women equal rights as citizens. It was in the territory of Wyoming in the western US and is today commemorated by a giant statue of Esther Hobart Morris in front of the state capitol building in Cheyenne.
Morris is the woman most closely associated with the legislation for women’s suffrage. She is an example of the way in which strong-minded women could be influential in western, pioneering areas, while their sisters in the eastern United States were being patronised and sidelined.
Esther Morris was born Esther McQuigg, in 1814 in New York State. She was left an orphan at an early age and relied on her own resources. She was active in the anti-slavery cause; at one time an anti-slavery meeting was held in a Baptist church which pro-slavery thugs threatened to destroy. Esther, described as not yet twenty, stood up in her pew and declared ‘This church belongs to the Baptist people and no one has the right to destroy it. If it is proposed to burn it down, I will stay here and see who does it.’
The next time she is mentioned in the record she was carrying on a successful millinery business; at twenty-eight she married a railway engineer. His death several years later gave her an education in the iniquities of the law of property regarding women, as her husband had left a large tract of land in Illinois and she, now with an infant son, had to struggle to gain her inheritance. She married a merchant, John Morris, and joined him in the town of South Pass in 1869. She was said to have been a commanding presence, a big woman standing six foot tall, she was described as ‘heroic in size, masculine in mind’ and to have been a firm disciplinarian to her three sons.
There is an apocryphal story that Esther Morris had a tea party at which she asked the two opposing candidates for the legislature to pledge themselves to work for women’s suffrage, so that whoever won, women’s suffrage would be passed. Certainly she had been involved in lobbying, but she always downplayed her contribution, three years later stating publicly ‘To William H.Bright belongs the honour of presenting the woman suffrage bill.’
William H. Bright was the president of the council of the territory of Wyoming, he was a mine and saloon bar owner. He had a strong woman as a wife and respected other strong women including his neighbour in South Pass, Esther Morris. Her son Robert Morris described how he and his mother visited the Brights and discussed women’s suffrage.
Race also played a part, with the ballot having recently been given to black men. Bright was a Southerner who was said to have ‘cherished a deep prejudice against giving the Negroes full rights of citizenship, maintaining that his mother and wife were far more capable of exercising such privileges than ignorant men.’
The most powerful argument was that votes for women and other woman-friendly legislation would be an advertisement for the new territory of Wyoming that was sparsely settled, yet thousands crossed it on their way to the riches of California. Something was needed to make Wyoming more attractive so travellers would stay, and to make it more attractive to women was a long term solution to the population problem. There were 6500 males over the age of 10 and 1400 females in the territory, so giving women the vote would not put them in a political majority, as it would for example in the UK where women outnumbered men.
Technically, the women’s suffrage amendment was submitted on 27 November 1869 and it was later passed by a vote of six in favour, two against (with one absentee). The members of the upper house then passed it by a vote of seven to four and it became law on 10 December 1869. The bill enfranchised women on a simple residency qualification making it not only an advanced piece of legislation in its conception, but also in its mechanism, at a time when most men in the world were enfranchised on a property or tax qualification. It would be sixty years before the UK enfranchised men and women equally on a residency qualification.
Women were permitted to occupy public office by the same legislation and in 1870 Esther Morris was appointed justice of the peace in South Pass City, making her the first female government official, and she is often referred to as the first woman judge. Her first case was to bring the justice of the peace she had replaced to trial for refusing to give up to her papers and items relating to the office she now occupied.
It is as well to note that there was a reaction to these democratic advances when women’s emancipation in Wyoming started going into reverse. Women served on juries in 1870 and 1871 until a new judge declared that jury service was not an adjunct to suffrage and Wyoming women did not serve on juries again until 1950. Esther Morris was not reappointed when her term came to an end, she had been a justice for less than a year. In 1871 the Democrats in a new legislature, who believed that woman voters had supported the Republicans, passed a bill to repeal women’s suffrage, but Governor John A. Campbell vetoed it. His veto was almost overridden (the upper house voted 5 to 4 to override, when 6 to 3 was needed). So women still voted, but it was a close run thing.
Esther Morris began to be heralded as the ‘mother of women’s suffrage’ in the 1890s when her son Archibald Slack started using the term in his newspaper the Cheyenne Sun She died in Cheyenne on 2 April 1902 at the age of eighty-seven. Morris was chosen in 1955 as Wyoming’s outstanding deceased citizen and the statue in front of the Wyoming capitol building was erected. The inscription simply says she was ‘proponent of the legislative act in 1869’ which gave women equal rights in Wyoming.
Jad Adams is an independent historian. He specialises in radical characters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and ‘the decadence’ of the 1890s. He is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of English, School of Advanced Study, University of London. His books include Tony Benn: A Biography (1992 and 2011), Gandhi: Naked Ambition (2010), Pankhurst (2003) and a composite biography of the Nehru dynasty. Literary work includes Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson, (2000) and Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle (2004).