In our series about women going west, we’ve talked about the challenges these women faced and how they worked hard to get a job accomplished. Respectable women were respected in the west; they were important members of their communities.
One particular right was granted to women in the western territories or states – oftentimes decades before that right was adopted by the Federal Government and written as a Constitutional Amendment. It was the right to vote.
That Very First Vote
Flashback History Moment: Long before the wagon trains crept across the western plains, a woman had officially voted. The exact year? 1805.
Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who traveled with and on several occasions helped guide the Lewis and Clark Expedition, voted. The Corps of Discovery was taking a vote to determine where they should built winter quarters along the Pacific Coast and asked members to vote. Sacagawea voted along with the men. (You can learn more about this event in this blog post. It was also the first time a black man officially voted in U.S. History.)
How does this relate to today’s topic? Perhaps it illustrates more “openness” to new ideas and perhaps the need for voters or a slightly more equality-respect for woman may have existed away from the east coast norms.
Women Voting In Wyoming
In 1869, Wyoming Territory officially allowed women to voted; when Wyoming became a state in 1889, that right was written into their state constitution.
At age sixty-nine, Louisa Ann Swain was the first woman to cast a ballot legally in the United States in the 1870 general election. As the account goes, she had walked to Laramie to purchase some supplies, saw the polling place, remember her newly granted rights, and decided to vote. A Laramie newspaper described Mrs. Swain’s appearance on that historic day as “a gentle white-haired housewife, Quakerish in appearance.”
Other Territories & States
The following territories and states granted women full or partial voting rights prior to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919. Fourteen of those nineteen states are considered “western states.” Notice a trend?
Wyoming (1869), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon (1912), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Alaska (1913), Illinois (1913), North Dakota (1917), Indiana (1919), Nebraska (1917), Michigan (1918), Arkansas (1917), New York (1917), South Dakota (1918), Oklahoma (1918)
The Nineteenth Amendment
Here’s what it said:
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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
It meant that women who were citizens of the United States would be allowed to vote. Coming after years of marches, speeches, protests organized by women’s rights movements, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed in 1919 and was ratified a short while later.
Women In The West: Their Influence
Women in the west offered an example of exercising a civic right. How and why did they gain that right before women in other parts of the country? Of course, there are multiple factors in why women in the west got the vote, and they could literally fill a book. However, we don’t have that much time to explore all the details today. So here are my thoughts (condensed):
I suggest that respectable women in the American west “worked” their way to that right. As hard working members of their communities who helped their neighbors, made homes in the wilderness, fought off attacks from hostile tribes or ferocious animals, and -when necessary – ran ranches, plowed fields, battled prairie fires, and survived blizzards (and many other brave actions), these pioneer women settled and oftentimes civilized the west. They helped form and guide communities. They taught the next generation of Americans. They were women in hard situations who determined to stay. They embraced courage and feminine skills, but weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to ensure the survival of their families.
Actions and attitudes like these made them a cornerstone in the new towns, counties, territories, and states. Why not let a woman have a say in the governing of her hometown or region? That didn’t necessarily mean she could run for office, stump speech, or go political campaigning, but it did mean that her opinion was heard in the sitting room and recorded in the ballot box.