On Sept. 6, 1870—Election Day—officials in Wyoming were concerned. The previous year, a violent mob in South Pass had attempted to prevent African American men from voting. And since then, the territorial Legislature had granted full political equality to its women citizens. It was not clear how this latest change would be met.
But as the polls opened in Laramie, Louisa Swain, an “aged grandam,” cast her vote, and the watching crowd cheered. Many women voted in Laramie that day, including at least two African American women, who were escorted to the polls by a deputy U.S. marshal. Utah had enfranchised women shortly after Wyoming, and women there voted peacefully in February and August of 1870. Fifty years before the 19th Amendment prohibited discrimination in voting on the basis of sex, these Western women were pioneers of political equality.
As next year’s 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment approaches, a record number of female candidates are running for president—evidence of the inroads women have made in U.S. politics. That journey began in the West, where a rapidly changing society, coupled with a public desire for reform, allowed suffragists to shake the foundations of male political dominance. Racist policies meant not all women benefited. Still, the West’s choice to radically expand voting rights brought millions more Americans into the realm of politics.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the Reconstruction Amendments made many women citizens but did not guarantee their voting rights. Despite the efforts of national suffrage movements, Eastern and Southern governments proved unreceptive to such a radical concept.
Westerners were more open to the idea of expanding the franchise. Many felt that railroads and corporations were too powerful, and that society and government had become too corrupt, taking power from the common man— and woman. As Mrs. E.P. Thorndyke of California put it in 1880, “This male experiment of a republican form of government has proved a lamentable failure and is fast merging into an oligarchy where fraud, incompetency and tyranny are the marked and leading features.” Perhaps women could clean up the mess, and bring power to the people.
But entrenched interests rarely give up power without a fight. The initial successes in Wyoming and Utah were followed by years of setbacks: Washington granted suffrage in 1883, but its Supreme Court revoked it in 1887. Similarly, a federal law targeting polygamists disenfranchised Utah’s women, also in 1887. Hard-fought battles reversed that trend in the 1890s, as Colorado, Utah and Idaho women gained access to the ballot box. But then, progress stalled.
Nevertheless, suffragists persisted. They wore out the soles of their shoes speaking in mines and on mountaintops, organizing women’s clubs and suffrage parades. They built coalitions with other reformers—union members, populists and progressives—and gathered support from Mormon communities and temperance advocates. Suffragists lobbied state legislatures and pushed for ballot measures. Many, many of these measures failed, until Washington provided the breakthrough in 1910, by restoring the franchise. Most of the rest of the West enfranchised women soon afterward.
The West’s diverse communities were critical to these campaigns’ success. Many African American, Latina, Chinese American and Indigenous women saw suffrage as a way to empower themselves and their communities. Speaking in San Francisco in 1896, African American suffragist Naomi Anderson argued that “Woman’s suffrage would result in much good to the men as well as to the women, for the black laws on California’s statute books would never be canceled until the women had their rights and cast their votes.”
But even as Western states expanded voting rights to women, many also adopted Southern-style Jim Crow laws, including literacy and English language tests that were often used to disenfranchise immigrants and Latinos. These policies were also deployed against Indigenous communities. Throughout the 1800s, the federal government forced Indigenous Americans onto perpetually shrinking reservations, promoting the development of a new version of the West at the expense of its original inhabitants. Until the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, only Native Americans who renounced their tribal identities could become U.S. citizens and vote in U.S. elections. But even after 1924, many Western states continued to disenfranchise Indigenous Americans, and discriminatory laws and practices continue today.
While the implementation of suffrage was incomplete, it did allow some women—predominantly white women—a path into politics. The West produced the first woman elected to a statewide office, Laura Eisenhuth of North Dakota, in 1892; the first woman to serve in Congress, Jeanette Rankin of Montana, in 1917; and the first woman governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming, in 1925.
In some ways, the West continues to lead the way for women in politics. In 2018, Nevada made history by electing the first majority-female Legislature in U.S. history; California has sent more women to Congress than any other state; and several Western states boast all-female Senate delegations. But progress has not been uniform. In Wyoming, today’s Legislature is only 15.6 percent female, one of the lowest rates in the nation. And nationally, Congress is still less than 25 percent female. One hundred years after the 19th Amendment, women still lack an equal voice in U.S. politics.
Democracies are designed to evolve, but sometimes the shifts move like molasses. Even if a woman cracks the presidential glass ceiling in 2020, we are still far from gender equity in politics. A century and a half ago, our Western foremothers and their male allies took the first steps in that direction. What we choose to do with that legacy is up to us.
Jennifer Helton is assistant professor of history at Ohlone College in California. She is the author of an essay on suffrage in Wyoming that appears in Equality at the Ballot Box. The writer would like to acknowledge that this piece owes much to the scholarship of Corrine McConnaughy, Jennifer Ross-Nazzal and Rebecca Mead, though the conclusions are her own.