More than 50 years before the 19th Amendment gave women across the United States full voting rights, legislators in the Wyoming Territory passed a bill granting suffrage to white female residents aged 21 years and older.
The bill was a political gambit, according to Tom Rea of the Wyoming State Historical Society. On July 25, 1868, the federal government established Wyoming as an official territory—and it needed a government. Eventually, newly elected president Ulysses S. Grant appointed a few of his Republican colleagues to oversee the region. Shortly after Republican John Campbell began his tenure as Wyoming’s new governor in 1869, he issued an official legal opinion that no territorial resident should be denied the opportunity to vote based on race.
But Wyoming’s territorial legislature was made up entirely of Democrats (which was then the party of small government) who, according to official documents, didn't seem interested in advancing the rights of people of color. But they felt differently about women’s rights. In the late 1860s, Wyoming passed bills ensuring equal pay for all teachers, regardless of gender, and guaranteeing married women individual property rights (separate from their husbands). In some ways, women’s suffrage was the logical next step.
While some legislators did sincerely believe in supporting women’s rights, other lawmakers had different motives for suggesting that women should be able to vote. Men outnumbered women by a 6-to-1 ratio at the time, so Wyoming leaders hoped the new measure might attract more single women to the territory. Other Democratic leaders hoped the proposal would put Governor Campbell in a tough position: If Campbell, who had a history of supporting voting rights for black Americans, vetoed a bill granting voting rights to women, he would look hypocritical. And if the proposal did pass, Democrats hoped women voters would give them the credit and support their party.
The bill eventually passed seven votes to four, with one abstention. After taking several days to decide on his position, Governor Campbell signed the bill into law on December 10, 1869—making Wyoming the first state to allow women the right to vote and to elect a governor.
But Democrats who had hoped that women would use their new power to support the political party that made it happen for them were quickly disappointed. In 1870, women voters helped send a Republican territorial representative to Congress. One year later, they elected a few Republicans to the territorial legislature. Democrats blamed women voters for their defeats, and they soon passed a bill rescinding women’s suffrage—but it was too late. Campbell vetoed the repeal, and Democrats fell one vote short of the number needed to override the governor’s decision.
Though it wasn't a smooth transition for Wyoming, other Western territories soon followed suit. Utah passed suffrage laws in 1870 (women were later disenfranchised by the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, but they regained the right to vote in 1896), and Washington and Montana gave women the right to vote in the 1880s. By 1919, women had full voting rights in 15 states, 13 of which were west of the Mississippi River.
Because of its status as the first state to grant women suffrage, Wyoming calls itself the Equality State. While the full truth of that moniker remains somewhat debatable, the state certainly deserves recognition for its role as an early trailblazer.