Quite naturally, Esther Morris was a judge in the beautiful state of Wyoming back in 1870. But hers is not the story of a female looking to make a name for herself as an advocate for women’s suffrage. Nope, Esther spent 55 years of her life living the tame life in New York state and then Illinois as a milliner and a housewife. I know. It’s just not what one might think a woman who will be judge would be doing with her life, but these are the facts, ma’am. She and her second husband (don’t know what happened to the first one) moved to Wyoming Territory where her husband opened up a saloon in a gold mining camp in South Pass City in 1869. Doesn’t seem like the expected beginnings of a lady judge, does it? Well, hang on because I’m about to tell you the way it all came about.
(You'd think a milliner would wear a hat everywhere-just sayin')
Just so happens, that year a territorial representative from South Pass introduced a bill giving women the right to vote and hold public office. Now there’s a little hidden agenda in this move due to the fact that Wyoming needed some women. The Wyoming’s all male legislature approved the bill to attract women to the state. It was like putting out sugar water to attract humming birds. Wyoming was the first territory (eventually, state) in American history to empower women. The territorial governor, John Campbell, was one of the strongest backer of the new law. He was eager to take more actions toward the political power of women, so in 1870, Campbell began to search for women qualified and willing to be appointed as justices of the peace. Low and behold, Esther Morris became Campbell’s first and only successful appointment.
Though hailed by American suffragists because of her appointment as the first female judge, not only in America, but in the world, Esther didn’t seem to have been all that dedicated as an activist for women’s rights. She just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or so it seems. She was appointed to serve out the term of a man who resigned, and served only nine months as justice of the peace. She tried 26 cases with competence during her time as judge, but retired from her post in November 1870 and never sought public office again.
Later, when asked about the issue of women’s suffrage, Esther replied that women would do well to leave the matter in the hands of men. Though she supported women’s rights, she advocated a more gradual approach would be more successful. Like some of you, I was stunned to learn this little tidbit about her. You’d think she would’ve stood on a soap box after such an accomplishment encouraging other women to seek office. Disappointing, to say the least.
Esther Morris's Bronze Statue at the Capitol Building
Even so, regardless of her reluctance to be revered as an activist, Esther Morris has often been celebrated as an important symbol of women’s rights. I guess you have to start somewhere. In 1890, one of her sons began calling her the “mother of woman suffrage” in his Cheyenne newspaper. That just goes to show you the power of the pen—and suggestion. About twenty years after her death in 1902, a witness claimed that Morris had pushed for the introduction of the original bill granting women the right to vote, but of course, that was not what the evidence supports. But in the twists and turns of historical fact, the title of “first woman judge” has continued to be a symbol in the long battle of women’s rights in America. It’s a near fact anyway. Bronze statues at the United States Capitol and in Cheyenne still honor her memory.
So if anyone ever asks you to take a position that would be a first in history, just say “yes.” And that’s the end of my lesson in how to make a political statement. Stay tuned for more adventures and historical markers.
All my Wilding family stories are based in the fictional town of Hazard, Wyoming--a state I fell in love with, but have only seen once when I went on a trip with my friends.
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: