Monday, May 19, 2014

Esther Morris’s Legendary Tea Party

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 Morris

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:

Female Suffrage
Chapter 31

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.

Statue of Esther Morris

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.”

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9 comments:

  1. I've always admired Wyoming for being a pioneer in women's rights. I'd love to visit the state some time. Great post, Lyn.

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  2. One of the reasons I chose to write my stories in Wyoming, besides its wild beauty, was because they were the first to give women the right to vote. It's the Equality state--and they mean it.
    This was a wonderful article, Lyn, and I enjoyed reading it.

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  3. I think that Montana took after Wyoming, soon enfranchising women as well. It's amazing to think that soon after that a woman from Montana became a congress member before women were even allowed to vote nationally.
    -Lani

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  4. Thanks, Caroline. I never gave much thought to why Wyoming gave women the vote back then. Dee Brown's chapter on Esther Morris's tea party explains a lot.

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  5. Thank you, Sarah. It's a good reason for staging your stories in Wyoming. I'm thinking of writing a short story set there too.

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  6. Lani, I didn't know Montana followed Wyoming's lead in giving women the vote. Good for both states! I wonder what kind of reception that lone woman congress member received from the "good ole boys" in D.C. I'm betting they weren't thrilled to see her walk into their hallowed halls.

    When Esther Morris took office as Justice of the Peace in South Pass City, she was ridiculed in eastern newspapers, but she ruled on a good number of cases during her months in office, and none of her rulings were ever overturned. Quoting old movies, she was a "classy dame!"

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  7. Fantastic story. I've always been so impressed with Wyoming for being the first to do this. Thanks for the post, Lyn. The story brings up so much that could be said about the whole issue of recognizing women's intelligence, ability, and indomitable spirit. The overall importance of women. And it still resonates today. Barb Bettis

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  8. Fabulous information, Lyn. I'm always amazed at how little we were taught in American history classes...thinking as I am of Dee Brown's other book on how the west was lost.
    (Bury my heart at Wounded Knee). In my very first book the heroine and her outlaw plan to immigrate to Wyoming for this very reason. Great post today!

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  9. Wonderful, Lyn. I knew some of this about women and Wyoming, but didn't know why they got the vote. I love the "tea party" idea.
    I've been through Wyoming, as I have many, many place, and there was such an awesome feeling I didn't get from any other state or area. Honestly, it looked like we were on a moon scape, or something very eerie and spiritual at the same time. Thanks.

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