Where in the United States were women first allowed to vote? New York, Connecticut, maybe Washington, D.C.? Nope. It was Wyoming.
In 1869, a full 51 years before the 19th Amendment, legislators in Cheyenne, the capital of this rough-and-tumble Western state and voted to give women the right to vote. In Wyoming in 1870, Louisa Gardner Swain became the first woman in the world to cast her vote under laws giving women full equality with men.
When the Wyoming Territory applied for statehood, at first, legislators in Washington D.C. told them Wyoming had to first rescind women’s voting rights. The Wyoming delegates – all men – refused. “If the women can’t come with us, we don’t want to go,” it’s reputed one of them said.
It took some wrangling and seven re-votes, but Wyoming finally prevailed and won its place in the union – with women’s voting rights intact. This story and others about women’s role in the West is on full display at Cheyenne’s Cowgirls of the West Museum. (Since the museum features stories about all women in the West, not just Cowgirls, the name is a bit of a misnomer.)
Suffrage for women isn’t the only “women’s first” for Cheyenne, a historic Western town located in the southeastern corner of Wyoming. In 1870, Cheyenne saw the U.S.’s first female justice (Esther Hobart Morris in 1870). Women began serving on juries here a full 12 years before they could do so in other places in the United States. In 1884, Wyoming’s Marietta Stow became the first female vice presidential candidate of a major political party (the Equal Rights Party). And in 1924, Wyoming elected the first woman governor, Nellie Taylor Ross, who ran her state from this Wild West town.
“Wyoming was 50 years ahead of its time,” says Ben Hilsen, a state certified historian at Cheyenne’s Cowgirls of the West Museum. The modest museum, located in downtown Cheyenne, tells the story of women in the West and the critical role they played in our nation’s history. “People have a view of the West as backward, but Western society, especially here in Wyoming, had more to do with shaping U.S. social policy than most people know.”
Back in the 1860’s, men in Wyoming weren’t a bunch of equal rights advocates. They supported women because they needed them to help populate this rugged country. To encourage women to come to the state, Wyoming allowed women to homestead and own property. “In 1869, if a woman came here and could make it for five years, she owned the land she was homesteading, just like a man,” says Hilsen.
The tough life in Wyoming also made equal rights and equal opportunity a necessity. For instance, early immigrants from Europe had brought with them the side saddle, an impractical contraption that forced a woman, in a long skirt or dress, to ride a horse perched on the horse’s back with one leg hitched up. “Side saddles had been around since 1200 when European aristocracy decided it was the only proper conveyance for a woman,” Hilsen explains. “You’d have thought people who could cross the Atlantic Ocean, including the women, would have left that behind, but they didn’t. In fact, until 1906, a woman caught riding astride a horse and not on a sidesaddle or in pants could be arrested for indecent exposure.”
Holder stands beside a display of several of the museum’s side saddles. Looking at these impractical devices, it’s difficult to imagine anyone, especially someone in a long dress, feeling comfortable or safe atop a side saddle. The Western women of Wyoming agreed.
Ranching and Rodeo Skills
“In the 1880’s women in Wyoming were ranching and homesteading,” Hilsen explains. “They couldn’t use side saddles; they weren’t practical. So Wyoming became the first place where women wore pants and rode astride a horse and the trend spread outward from here.”
Wyoming also was home to some of the brightest female stars of professional rodeo. Before women were banned from rough stock rodeo events like bull and bronc riding, they competed – and often won – competing head-to-head against men. The Cowgirls of the West Museum features many of them, including Florence Hughes Randolph, a world champion trick rider and bronc rider; Bertha Blancette, the first woman to ride broncs at Cheyenne Frontier Days; and Bonnie McCarroll, who won the bronc riding championship at the prestigious Cheyenne Frontier Days and at the first rodeo at Madison Square Garden. According to Hilsen, it was the success of these cowgirls and others that led to women being banned from rodeo competition.
“Rodeo competitors were the first female athletes,” says Hilsen. “Bertha Blancett was competing at the Pendleton Round-up in Oregon and was within 10 points of the Top All Around Cowboy. The men couldn’t handle the idea that a woman might beat them and be crowned Top All-Around World Champion Cowboy at Madison Square Garden. They began a movement against women competing against the men and by 1915 the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) ruled that women could only compete against women.”
Around the same time, the deaths of two top women rodeo competitors — Bonnie McCarroll at Pendleton and Marie Gibson in Idaho Falls during a roping competition – fueled the movement to have women banned from competing in rodeos all together. “The deaths of McCarrol and Gibson generated a lot of negative press,” explains Hilsenr. “In 1915, there were still some Victorian attitudes about what women should and shouldn’t do. Newspapers wrote articles and editorials against women competing. With the negative press came pressure from sponsors who said if you allow women to compete, we’re not going to financially support your rodeo.”
By 1935, few women in the West were competing in rodeos. In 1940, Alice Grenough was the last woman to ride a bucking bronc at Madison Square Garden. By World War II, women had stopped competing in professional rodeos. In 1967, the PRCA allowed women to compete against one another in barrel racing and it remains the only professional rodeo event they’re allowed to compete in.
You can learn more about Wyoming’s role in shaping women’s history at the Cowgirls of the West Museum and all around Cheyenne. In front of Wyoming’s beautiful state capital is a large statue of Ester Hobart Morris, the woman who petitioned Wyoming legislators to grant women the right to vote. Just down the street is the home of Nellie Taylor Ross, the state’s first governor.– by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
For more about Cheyenne, the Cowgirls of the West Museum & Gift Store, and Wyoming’s rich women’s history, check out: