by Lyn Horner
Wyoming Territory granted women the right to vote in 1869, fifty-one years before passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing all American women full voting rights. We all learned that in history class, but I don’t remember any teacher mentioning Esther Morris and the role she played in getting Wyoming women the vote. Do you?
Esther Hobart McQuigg Slack Morris (born Aug. 8, 1814, near Spenser, N.Y.) moved to the Sweetwater Mining District of Wyoming in 1869, where her second husband and eldest son had gone the previous year to open a saloon. Traveling by train and stagecoach, Morris and her eighteen-year-old twin sons, Robert and Edward, joined the two men in South Pass City, a mining town of about 3,000 residents, the largest town in the territory at that time.
A tall woman of strong character, with a staunch belief in women’s rights, Esther Morris is said to have given a tea party in her home – a miner’s shack – on September 2, 1869, for twenty influential citizens of South Pass City. Her guests included her district’s Democrat and Republican candidates for Wyoming’s first territorial legislature. That evening, so the story goes, she asked each of the two men if he would introduce a bill in the legislature giving Wyoming women the right to vote. Amazingly, both candidates said yes.
The Democrat, Colonel William H. Bright, won the election and he kept his word, probably with urging from his wife, who Esther Morris had nursed through a difficult childbirth, likely saving her life. The bill to give women the vote met with opposition in the all-Democrat legislature, but in the end it passed both the Senate and the House, partly due to Esther Morris and other women who wrote letters and personally called upon legislators and the territorial governor.
Some of the men who voted for the bill probably expected Republican Governor John Campbell to veto it. However, as a young man, Campbell had heard Susan B. Anthony speak at a women’s suffrage convention, and her arguments for giving women the vote impressed him. Despite bitter wrangling over the bill, Governor Campbell signed it into law on December 10, 1869. For the first time anywhere in the world, women had the right to vote.
For such an historic document, it’s very brief:
An Act to Grant to the Women of Wyoming Territory the Right of Suffrage, and to Hold Office
Be it enacted by the Council and House of Representatives of the Territory of Wyoming:
Sec. 1. That every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this territory, may at every election to be holden under the laws thereof, cast her vote. And her rights to the elective franchise and to hold office shall be the same under the election laws of the territory, as those of electors.
Sec. 2. This act shall take effect and be in force from and after its passage.
Approved, December 10, 1869.
The story of Esther Morris’s tea party has never been proven by any hard evidence, but it is a fact that she went on to serve as Justice of the Peace in South Pass City – the first woman judge ever in this country or elsewhere. She became involved in the national women’s suffrage movement and, since 1953, a bronze statue of her has stood at the Wyoming State Capitol building in Cheyenne. A replica stands in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C.
In Dee Brown’s wonderful book, The Gentle Tamers, he gives an account of Esther’s Wyoming tea party and her pioneering work for women’s rights. He concludes this way: “Wyoming became the first place, and for many years, the only place in the world that allowed women to vote. That was a truly remarkable legacy for a very remarkable woman.”