It isn’t a federal holiday and probably never will be declared one, considering how close it it to Labor Day,
Still, every year, starting in the middle of August until the month’s end, from Macomb, Illinois to Redmond, Washington to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Palm Beach, Florida, to Hollywood, California to Fort Rucker, Alabama, there were parades, panel hearings, receptions, exhibits, and voter registration drives held in campus auditoriums, museums, community centers and town squares marking what Congress designated as “Women’s Equality Day,” in 1971.
It commemorates the period from August 18 to August 26, 1920, the first being the day Tennessee became the tipping point state ratifying the 19th Amendment and the second being the day it was officially adopted into the Constitution with the simple wording, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
The trio of suffrage activists (“suffragette” was a media term) Susan B. Anthony. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are famously celebrated as the movement leaders in the 70-year fight to give women the right to vote.
Today, most people don’t realize that by the time all American women were able to go to the polls on Election Day, women in Wyoming had been doing it for fifty years.
And it wasn’t because of Susan B. Anthony or any other woman.
It was because of two guys with scruffy facial hair who were political enemies by virtue of regionalism and party loyalty. One was a Northern Republican, the other a Southern Democrat.
Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that both men have been erased from the public celebrations – and the credit for Wyoming women getting the very first right to vote in the U.S. is given to a, yes – a woman.
It’s a quintessentially American story.
Coming from a childhood of impoverished struggle, labor leader Cesar Chávez finally got global attention to focus on the rights of striking farm workers when he gained the support of a man who came from a childhood of wealthy privilege, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy
The move to abolish the slavery of black men and women was driven by white men and women.
The passage of same-sex marriage in various states has been accomplished by a majority of legislators married to the opposite sex.
It was male U.S. Senate and House members, most of whom drank heavily, who succumbed to pressure from women temperance leaders and enacted Prohibition.
Sixty-eight women attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first formal meeting to organize the fight for women’s equal legal, property and voting rights and signed the resulting “Declaration of Sentiments.”
Rarely is it mentioned that thirty-five men also attended and signed the document.
“History,” said Winston Churchill, “is written by the victors.”
When there’s a few victors, however, it’s often a matter of choosing just one of them to tell the most dramatic version of the story and serve as the symbolic hero.
Were it not for the scruff on his face – and the increasing lack of it on his head, thirty-four year old John Allen Campbell might have been called baby-face in 1869.
Campbell was born in Ohio, to a family which opposed the continuing enslavement of African-Americans. When the Civil War began, he quit his printing job and joined the Union Army, rising to Brevet Brigadier General. After the war, he was assigned to organize new congressional districts in the former Confederate state of Virginia, and ensure that newly-freed black male Virginians were not prevented from exercising their new constitutional right to vote by white male Virginians. Campbell had become a staunch Republican because it promised justice for former slaves.
Under Campbell’s jurisdiction, one white male Virginian decided to just leave and pursue his vision for a golden new life of his own. He was Bright. William H., to be exact. With a busy mustache he wore his whole life.
Bright had remained a staunch Democrat because it promised to deny justice for former slaves. With wife and child, he headed west in 1867, seeking his fortune in the Wyoming Territory town of South Pass City, where gold had been first discovered a year before.
What had been a stagecoach stop and telegraph station of shacks and tents on the way to the Oregon Trail that led to California now boomed and buzzed with 4,000 residents. A station of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, was just a coach ride away. South Pass City boasted a diverse prospector population of ex-Confederates, former slaves, and Chinese railroad workers, all drawn by the promise of wealth offered by gold.
Bill Bright may have left the Old South but there was no escaping the fact that with the right to vote even in the remote Wyoming Territory, African-American men were almost universally Republicans.
Having succeeded in getting himself chosen as a Wyoming Territory delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention, he now determined to establish it as Democratic stronghold.
Achieving that goal and pursing a political career began to look more promising than making a fortune in gold as the months went on. For the time being, Bill Bright ended up opening a saloon.
It was a harsh life of bitter and long winters, rocky terrain and isolation. Bill Bright ended up making his fortune by opening a saloon. Prostitutes followed, but there remained a ratio of about four men for every woman. It took a tough woman to make a life in South Pass.
A woman like Esther Hobart Mcquigg Slack Morris.
Orphaned at fourteen, supporting herself as a hat-maker, she learned to stand up for herself – and others. She’d supported abolition of slavery long before the Civil War, but after being widowed a second time and then denied the right to inherit her late husband’s Illinois property because women were prohibited from owning property, she became a women’s rights advocate.
Enraged by this gender injustice, she found an outlet for her frustration by going to hear a fiery lecture by Susan B. Anthony, Just before boarding the train to Wyoming Territory.
Even if she hadn’t been six feet tall, Esther Morris would stand out in a crowd. The native New Yorker was fifty-five years old when she arrived in South Pass City with one of her twin sons. Archibald, her other son and John Morris, third husband, had preceded them, buying interests in mines which they confidently believed would produce gold. By the time Esther got there, however, they could support themselves only by doing what Bill Bright did, owning and operating a saloon.
Just as Esther Morris was figuring out how her family of four adults were going to live in the 26-foot long 24-foot wide wood shack they now called home, someone else was arriving in Wyoming Territory, sent out there as its very first Governor by President Grant with the little task of establishing a functioning government.
Humble, honorable, and frail John Campbell was the chosen one.
Suffering from vertigo after four days of stop-and-start railway travel and stagecoach, Campbell arrived in the designed capital of Cheyenne during a torrential rainstorm on May 7, 1869. When a group of gamblers, prospectors, lingering rail workers and whores sang a drunken welcome under his window, Campbell recorded, “Was serenaded at night, but too sick to respond.”
In carrying out his duty and begin the process of forming a state legislature, Campbell issued two important proclamations. One announced that the very first election in Wyoming Territory would be held in September, to choose the 22 members who would compose the first legislature, organized like the states with both a congress and a senate (which was referred to as the council). The second decree stipulated that all men of all races over the age of 21 had the right to vote.
Bill Bright saw the election as his chance to enter politics. And some historians suggest that he viewed the order ensuring African-American men the right to vote as a move intended to get them to vote Republican.
Bill Bright was not only elected to the Wyoming Territory senate but also chosen to head the other members, giving him the sole power of deciding what legislative bills to initiate.
In a snap, he was suddenly vested with enormous power.
Every single Wyoming Territory represented elected to the first legislature was also a Democrat, a startling turn of events which promised he’d encounter little to no resistance on anything he proposed. Still, whatever the legislature approved, Governor Campbell had the power to determine whether he would sign or veto it.
When the Wyoming Territory convened a month later for the first time, something unexpected, unprecedented and untimely rapidly unfolded.
Bill Bright proposed new laws for the territory which guaranteed the right of equal pay for equal work among male and female teachers, the right of women to hold private property without ownership claims by their husbands, the right of equal access between women and men to witness the legislature in action, the equal right for women to hold public office, the equal right of women to serve on juries and the most revolutionary proposal of all: the equal right to vote for the women of Wyoming Territory.
With only four votes against it and one abstention, the women’s rights bills passed the legislature.
The fact that only white women of Wyoming were being offered the right to vote while it was denied to African-American and Native American women, however, suggested the motive of a political agenda behind such a shocking leap forward.
Some calculated that by giving women all these rights they would all gratefully register as Democrats and offset the numbers of African American men who were presumably Republican.
Others analyzing the situation further suggested that, on the premise Republican Governor Campbell would recognize this sly partisan tactic to stack the registered voters of Wyoming Territory against his party, he would be forced to veto it, an act that would make him wildly unpopular and ruin any future chance that Republicans would gain a majority.
Some even claimed the whole thing was a joke, meant to intimidate Governor Campbell, but the joke proved to be on anyone who believed that.
With the stroke of his signature on December 10, 1869, Governor Campbell did for Wyoming Territory white women what the U.S. Congress and territories of Washington, Nebraska and Dakota had all failed to do for their female residents. He signed the bill, granting women the very first right to vote in the United States.
The real reasons Democrat Bright proposed women be given the right to vote and Republican Campbell agreed was shockingly simple. They both believe it was the right thing to do.
Years later, as an honored speaker at a Women’s Suffrage Convention, Bill Bright declared that his proposal had not been made “in fun,” but because he believed the ability to determine who should represent the people of “his wife was as good as any man and better than convicts and idiots.”
And it was no less a person than suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt who credited moral imperative as the reason behind Governor Campbell signing it into law. She recorded that while debating whether to sign the bill, he recalled how impressed he’d been as a young boy, not only listening to women speakers “covering the whole range of woman’s political, religious, civil and social rights,” at a suffrage convention held in his hometown church, Baptist Church but watching the adult men who then came up and “endorsed all the ladies had said and done.”
It was also another man, Secretary of Wyoming Territory Herman Glafcke, who recognized the historic significance of Wyoming women voting for the first time in 1870 and recorded his eyewitness account:
“The first woman presenting her ballot soon after the opening of the polls, was [Eliza A. “Grandma” Swain] a lady seventy eight years old. A large and noisy crowd had collected at the entrance, but immediately made way for the old lady, and in respect for her age and venerable appearance the men took off their hats and remained uncovered, while she performed the sovereign duty of an American citizen…Soon after came our Methodist clergyman, his wife leaning upon his arm, both armed with a ballot…After that a number of ladies, in one body, without male attendants, approached the polls and deposited their ballots, and so on during the entire day…There were no insulting or jeering remarks made, no disturbance, usually so common on election days, occurred…woman suffrage has proved a blessing to the people of Wyoming…Our community is satisfied with the result and could not be induced to return to the old, barbarous system of disfranchisement of a portion of our citizens..”
Among the Wyoming women eager to exercise their right at the ballot box in the fall of 1870 was South Pass City’s very own Esther Morris. By that time, she had become a living legend among not just in Wyoming but across the entire United States.
Not every man in Wyoming had been pleased to be progressive.
In South Pass City, Justice of the Peace R. S. Barr resigned to protest women voting. In a swift move to bolster Wyoming Territory’s new reputation, it was yet another man, District Court Judge John W. Kingman, who coaxed Esther Morris into applying for the job, given her pontifications on the rights of women. Initially reluctant, she finally agreed and he appointed her. On February 14, 1870 she was approved by the Sweetwater County Board of Commissioners and thus earned the right to be heralded as the first Justice of the Peace in the United States.
If the appointment of Esther Morris shattered the sod ceiling, it was also a fantastic opportunity to promote Wyoming Territory as a feminist paradise – and hopefully attract more women there to marry the vast number of unmarried men, hopefully start families and boost the population so it could eventually get the numbers necessary to apply for statehood. As the Sweetwater County Clerk put it in their telegraphed press release, “Wyoming, the youngest and one of the richest Territories in the United States, gave equal rights to women in actions as well as words!”
The reality of America’s first Mrs. Justice of the Peace was a bit more mundane. The court room was her own house. She appointed her son Archibald as District Clerk and her son Robert as Assistant Clerk. Although none of her nearly thirty case rulings were overturned, by the time she ended her eight month stint on December 6, 1870, neither the Republicans or Democrats re-nominated her. Mr. Morris made his objection to his wife working by hitting her when he was drunk. She turned down the nomination by the Woman’s Party of Wyoming to run as their candidate in 1873 to the legislature and slipped out of the territory.
While Esther Morris headed back east, she inspired Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to head out west, taking the railroad out to Wyoming to promote it as a “the land of freedom” for women.
It was also fast becoming Republican Territory. In the days before voters could chose their candidates by secret ballot, it was soon clear that most Wyoming women voted for the party of Lincoln. Alarmed, Democrats tried to take away their right to vote in 1870 but by then, when Governor Campbell vetoed this proposal, women had elected enough Republicans to sustain his decision.
President Grant appointed Campbell to a second term in 1873 but made him an Assistant Secretary of State in 1875. Campbell moved to Washington where he died suddenly and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
By then, South Pass City’s population had dropped to about four hundred residents, no further gold to be found. With the new Union Pacific Railroad running coast to coast and mostly on time, it was easy to get out of town.
Bill Bright’s saloon went bankrupt. While still in Wyoming, he was praised as a Father of Women’s Suffrage, the Cheyenne Leader declaring, “Bright, of Wyoming, is already immortal.” Once he relocated to Denver, he might as well have been buried next to Campbell.
With Campbell and Bright now gone and quickly forgotten in Wyoming, Esther Morris returned and settled in Cheyenne. Adding to her luster as America’s First Woman Justice of the Peace were more polished credentials, serving as vice president of the American Woman Suffrage Association Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1876.
As the Wyoming Territory began its final strategy to achieve full statehood, Esther Morris rose as the living symbol of women’s suffrage there. When members of the U.S. Congress threatened to refuse the status of statehood on Wyoming unless the territorial legislature rescinded women’s suffrage, they received a harsh telegram in response: the citizens of Wyoming would rather remain a territory for one hundred years than compromise.
Washington relented. On July 10, 1890 President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill which made Wyoming the “Equality State.” In a grandly auspicious ceremony, the first state flag was presented to none other than Esther Morris. By the time she attended the 1896 Republican Convention which nominated William McKinley, one of only four women delegates (Nebraska and Colorado had also passed women’s suffrage by then), Esther Morris had morphed into the Sweetheart of Suffragists.
After her death in 1902, however, Esther Morris was transformed into a figure of reverent inspiration. Now the “real” truth could be told. Out of the woodwork came old-timers who remembered it all as if it were yesterday, instead of half a century before.
She had hosted a “tea party” in her home for the entire flank of twenty candidates running in 1869 for the first Wyoming Territory Legislature, so she could make the case for giving women the right to vote.
And she did this “so eloquently,” and with “such clarity and persuasion” that every single candidate pledged a solemn oath to her that, if elected, they would honor her with a woman suffrage bill.
One alleged eyewitness even told a newspaper that it was Esther Morris who had written out the bill herself.
Nobody asked how Mrs. Morris managed to lure men concerned that the legislature be located near a whiskey supply store famous for its back “sampling” room, with tea.
Or how she fit twenty of them into her small one-room sod-roofed wood shack.
Or how the story contradicted one of her two son’s recollection that he escorted her to first meet Bill Bright so she could thank him for already having proposed the suffrage bill.
Facts have no power over myth. By 1960, Esther Morris had been cast as a bronze statue and put in the U.S. Capitol Building and three years later a copy of it was put on public display in front of the Wyoming Capitol Building.
The greater irony, however, is that it was not only women suffragists who dropped John Campbell and Bill Bright from the tale of how American women first got the vote, but that two men so persistently credited Esther Morris for it that the myth was established.
They had their reasons.
The Wyoming State Journal letter which declared that, “To Mrs. Esther Morris is due the credit and honor of advocating and originating woman’s suffrage in the United States,” had been written by Herman Nickerson, a Republican who had run against Bill Bright as president of the senate – and lost.
And it was Cheyenne Sun editor Archibald Slack who first titled Esther Morris the “Mother of Suffrage.”
She had indeed been a mother.
In fact, his very own.
- Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution (thefirstwomanto.com)
- Women’s Equality Day (oup.com)
- Susan B. Anthony Festival Celebrates 93 Years of Women’s Suffrage (rochester.ynn.com)
- Celebrating Women’s Equality Day (whitehouse.gov)
- In honor of US Women’s Suffrage Anniversary, Aug 26: Slate article on Susan B. Anthony’s Scrapbooks (suitcasefullofmemories.me)
- Susan B. Anthony (womenwhoamaze.com)
- Some Important Feminist Women (womenshistory.answers.com)
- Thank you for the right to vote Susan B. Anthony (shiningthelightinthirdgrade.wordpress.com)