Celebrating Wyoming's women trailblazers
March 30, 2023
By Sen. John Barrasso, Sen. Cynthia Lummis & Rep. Harriet Hageman
March is Women’s History Month, when people across America commemorate and honor the important role played by women in our history. As members of Wyoming’s federal delegation, we’re proud that our state has led the way in championing women’s rights from the very beginning.
In Wyoming, we’re not just the Cowboy State. We are the Equality State, and our state motto is “Equal rights.” The idea of equal rights and opportunity for men and women has always been at Wyoming’s core.
Wyoming recognized women’s right to vote even before becoming a state. On December 10, 1869, the Wyoming Territory passed a law ensuring women have the right to vote and to hold public office. It was the first law in our nation’s history specifically recognizing these rights. We still commemorate this event every year as Wyoming Day.
Within a year of that historic achievement, Louisa Ann Swain of Laramie became the first woman in American history to cast a ballot in a federal election. At the time, Wyoming was one of the only places in the entire world where women could vote.
Wyoming women have always played a hands-on role in government and our justice system. In 1870, Esther Hobart Morris of South Pass City became America’s first female justice of the peace. In that same year, Eliza Stewart of Laramie became the first American woman to serve on a jury, Martha Symons Boies Atkinson of Laramie became America’s first female bailiff serving on that same grand jury.
When Wyoming became a state in 1890, Wyoming explicitly included women’s right to vote in our state constitution, the first time any state had made this guarantee, a full 30 years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
A year later, sisters Laura and Gertrude Huntington bought Saratoga’s Platte Valley Lyre, which became one of the first female-owned newspapers in the world.
Just four years after Wyoming became a state, we elected Estelle Reel to serve as state superintendent of education, making her one of the first women in the nation to hold statewide elected office. She was so effective and so popular in Wyoming that there was even a movement to nominate her for governor. Estelle Reel refused to run for governor, but President McKinley quickly nominated her to serve as national superintendent of Indian schools. Just a year after her historic election, she became the first woman ever confirmed by the United States Senate.
Even though Estelle Reel never ran for governor, Wyoming was still the first state to elect a female governor. On November 4, 1924, Wyoming elected Governor Nellie Tayloe Ross after the death in office of her husband, Governor William Ross. After her service as governor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated her to serve as the first female Director of the United States Mint. She became the highest-ranking woman in the federal government at the time.
The same year America finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the people of Jackson, Wyoming elected the first all-woman city government in American history. The home of one of the town councilors, Genevieve Van Vleck, is now known as Café Genevieve, standing half a block from Jackson’s town square. Today, Jackson’s many tourists and visitors can see where the so-called “petticoat government” informally met.
A century later, Wyoming continues to make women’s history. In 2016, Wyoming National Guard Sgt. Shelby Atkins became the first Army Infantry non-commissioned officer in American history. In 2018, Wyoming seated a majority-female Supreme Court for the first time in American history. There are many more examples of Wyoming women who have made a difference for our state and for our country, including many who are not included in the history books.
The people of Wyoming are right to be proud of the leading role our state has played in women’s history. We are honored to represent the Equality State and will continue to fight for the principles that have made our state great. We have confidence that some of the greatest contributions of Wyoming women are still to come.
Senators John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis and Representative Harriet Hageman, all R-Wyo., represent Wyoming in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.