Saturday, June 18, 2016

Esther Morris, First Woman Judge in the United States by Sarah McNeal

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.

Esther Morris 

(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:


  1. These are always such fascinating people you talk about! I wonder what caused her name to come up for consideration in the first place? Maybe existing judges and upright (wealthy) men were asked to submit names of upstanding, capable women, and someone knew her?

    1. Gerald, I'm right there with you. I'm still trying to understand how someone without a law degree (that I know of) could take the position of judge in the first place.
      You know my secret now, I purposefully look for weirdness from the old west. Since I'm an east coast chic, I can't exactly profess to be an expert on the west so I have to search for stories I can tell with authority--weirdness.

  2. What a brilliant post, Sarah! I love lest I g about our groundbreaking foremothers. Only one law school admitted women at this time, too. I am sure her attitudes stemmed from the prevailing culture of the time. Good job!!!! xo

    1. I love when you call me "brilliant", Tanya. I may not deserve it, but I like it all the same.
      About that time women were fighting for the right to vote. They were actually thrown into jail and tortured even. So here was Esther in the right place, right position, and the right time to make a statement for the sake of those of her gender that may have helped their cause--and she dropped the ball.
      Thanks for all your lovely words, Tanya. I'm always happy to see you.

  3. She definitely didn't seem too excited about being the judge, did she? How interesting to see how her life unveiled. Thanks for the post, Sarah.

  4. I know, Paisley, fate fell into her hands and she did nothing in return. She could have made such a difference. I have so many questions about how she became a judge, but I guess I'll never know.
    Thank you so much for coming by and commenting, Paisley.

  5. Another great "weird" tidbit from the Old West, Sarah! The lady may not have intended to be a symbol of the struggle for women's suffrage, but she contributed to the cause anyway. Thanks for sharing her story with us.

    1. I guess you know by now, Lyn, I love all things weird, crazy and wonderful.
      Thank you for coming by.

  6. Good for Esther--she sure wouldn't win any beauty contests. You just never know what would happen in the wide open spaces of the Far West, and this is one of the most intriguing. Good for her...I would love to see some of the hats she made, too.
    She was an advocate for Women's Suffrage whether she wanted to be or not. Thanks for this story--what a woman.

    1. I know, Celia, I was disappointed not to have a picture of her with a hat. Gee, you'd think a milliner would where a hat for every occasion, wouldn't you? I love hats and I have a bunch of them. Some are antiques. I don't wear them as much any more. It's a shame hats aren't as popular as they used to be.
      When she made the comment about leaving politics and decisions to men, well, I wish she had just kept her big bazoo shut.
      It's always a pleasure to have you come and comment. I appreciate it so much.


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