The Near-Repeal of Women's Suffrage

By Phil Roberts, Department of History, University of Wyoming

 

The first Territorial Legislature in 1869 passed the suffrage bill, giving women the right to vote for the first time anywhere in America. Two years later, the same legislature very nearly repealed the law. In fact, repeal failed by just one vote.

Democrats held every seat in both the House of Representatives and the Council in 1869. By the next session, however, Democrats had just four of the nine Council seats, Republicans gained three while one was won by a People’s Party member and another by an independent. In the 13-member House, four were Republicans; nine were Democrats.  William Bright, the South Pass City Democrat who introduced the bill in 1869, had chosen not to seek reelection to the Council.  In fact, only one incumbent House member returned—Ben Sheeks who, unlike his South Pass City colleague, had opposed the suffrage act. In the Council, not one incumbent returned in 1871.

Uinta County House member C. E. Castle gave notice immediately on arriving in Cheyenne that he intended to seek repeal of the suffrage law.[1] Nothing from the record indicates why Castle sought such action. Gov. John A. Campbell, the man who made history on Dec. 10, 1869, by signing the act into law, urged legislators not to repeal the law. “…women have voted in the territory, served on juries, and held office,” Campbell pointed out. “It is simple justice to say that the women entering, for the first time in the history of the country, upon these new and untried duties, have conducted themselves in every respect with as much tact, sound judgment, and good sense, as men.”[2]

            Despite Campbell’s entreaties, Castle introduced the repeal on the ninth day of the session, Nov. 13.[3] The Cheyenne Daily Leader commented in one paragraph: “Now, really that’s too bad! A week of the session is hardly over, and already a bill is announced in the legislature for the repeal of woman suffrage. What will Sooth Anthony say now?”[4] The following day, the repeal passed first and second reading and went to committee where the committee, after long discussion, gave it a “do pass” recommendation. On Nov. 17, the bill came up for final passage. It cleared the House by a vote of nine to three with one member absent and not voting.[5]

The editor of the Daily Leader was quick to try to convince the readers that the measure hadn’t been “a party measure.” He wrote: “The convenience of politicians has heretofore established that Women Suffrage in Wyoming, discarded by the Democracy, was the especially [sic] protégé of another party. This had been the light in which it was regarded by the press and on the stump. The essential features of necessity and wisdom or the reverse of woman’s voting, have been lost sight of, and the new element in our Territorial politics has been used as far could be, by politicians to subserve purely personal ends.” He added, “So much for the past.” He then argued that with the vote going to the council, members should not be “whipped into line under the lash of strict party discipline.”

Then the editor made his own position clear on the issue: “We trust the subject of woman suffrage may be calmly and dispassionately debated before a final vote in the Council. We have, for ourself, ever felt that female suffrage was repugnant to the wishes of a majority of refined and intelligent women of the land, and her direct participation in political affairs, as unchaste and subversive of the natural order of things. Nevertheless, we have exercised toward the measure the fullest degree of tolerance under the firm belief that a practical trial was due it, equally with any other issue which the perseverance, faith or ingenuity of men or women might bring before the public eye. In the final consideration of woman suffrage—that consideration is to end it or give it a new lease of life, and perhaps popularity—let it be divested of all political significance as regards existing parties, and stand or fall by its own merits.”[6]

When the bill went forward to the Council, the council spent one entire afternoon locked in debate over the measure and carried the debate over to the following morning.[7] The controversial bill passed there by a narrower vote of 5-4 on Nov. 30. By all appearances, Wyoming’s two-year experiment with women suffrage would be coming to an end. The editor of the Daily Leader predicted that the governor would veto the bill: “We are prepared to wager a postage stamp or two that he will veto it.”[8]

            Downey presented a petition, signed by “thirty ladies of Albany County, praying that H. B. 4, repealing woman suffrage, do not pass.”[9]  Otherwise, little lobbying on the measure is apparent from the record.

The following week, Gov. Campbell vetoed the repeal attempt, returning the bill to the House.[10]

I regret that a sense of duty compels me to dissent from your honorable body, with regard to any contemplated measure of public policy. ….A regard, however, for the rights of those whose interests are to be affected by it, and for what I believe to be the best interests of the territory, will not allow me to do so. The consideration besides, that the passage of this bill would, on the part of all those instrumental in bringing it about, be a declaration that the principles upon which the enfranchisement of women are urged, are false and untenable, and that our experience demonstrates this, influences me not a little, in my present action. …

So it was when two years ago the act which this bill designs to repeal was presented for my approval. There was at that time no experience to which I might refer, and test by its results the conclusions to which the application of certain universally admitted principles led me. In the absence of all such experience, I was driven to the application of principles which through the whole course of our national history have been powerfully and beneficially operative in making our institutions more and more popular, in framing laws more and more just and in securing amendments to our federal constitution.

If the ballot be an expression of the wish or a declaration of the will of the taxpayer as to the manner in which taxes should be levied and collected and revenues distributed, why should those who hold in their own right a large proportion of the wealth of the country be excluded from a voice in making the laws which regulate this whole subject? If again the ballot be for the physically weak, a guarantee of protection against aggressions and violence of the strong, upon which ground can the delicate bodily organism of woman be forbidden this shield for her protection? If once, more, each ballot be the declaration of the individual will of the person casting it as to the relative merit of opposed measures of men, surely the ability to judge and determine, the power of choice, does not depend upon sex, nor does womanhood deprive of personality. …. Yet, what is there but conjecture, prejudice and conservatism opposing the reform?

Campbell then took issue with the view that since women can’t serve in militia, they shouldn’t vote. He also argued that women actually could clean up politics and then disputed the view that men are “natural protectors” of their mothers, wives and sisters.

…To the statement so often made that the law which this bill is intended to repeal was passed thoughtlessly, and without proper consideration, I oppose the fact to which I have adverted, that the law perfectly conforms to all the other laws in relation to women upon our statute books; studied in connection with the other laws it would seem to have grown naturally from them. It harmonizes entirely with them and forms a fitting apex to the grand pyramid which is being built up as broadly and as surely throughout all of the States of the Union as it has been built up in Wyoming.

….In this territory women have manifested for its highest interests a devotion strong and ardent and intelligent. They have brought to public affairs clearness of understanding and a soundness of judgment which, considering their exclusion hitherto from practical participation in political agitations and movements, are worthy of the greatest admiration and above all, praise.

He repeated the statements he made in his message to the legislature earlier in which he urged that the suffrage bill not be repealed.

….For the first time in the history of our country we have a government to which the noble words of our magna charta of freedom may be applied, not as a mere figure of speech, but as expressing a simple grand truth, for it is a government which ‘derives all its just powers from the consent of the governed.’ We should pause long and weigh carefully the probable result of our action before consenting to change this government, a regard for the genius of our institutions—for the fundamental principles of American autonomy—and for the immutable principles of right and justice, will not permit me to sanction this change.

Both houses needed two-thirds votes to override and House Speaker Sheets immediately sought to override the veto in a special meeting of the legislature on Saturday evening, Dec. 9.

On Dec. 9, just a day short of two years since the initial passage, nine legislators voted for the veto override, to repeal women's suffrage.[11] The Daily Leader reported that speeches to override were made by Kuykendall, Sheeks and Wilson. “[They] certainly were what might be expected of every right thinking person, man or woman.” The Leader added that one Republican was heard saying he actually opposed women's suffrage, but “vote for its continuance as a party measure merely.”[12]

The editor hoped for repeal: “The abolition of the useless statute conferring suffrage upon women will be regretted by none of the sex, save those emulous of an unenviable notoriety in the ranks of the suffrage shriekers, the unsexed and uncultivated, we had almost said unchaste, of the Territory.  The question has its advocates among those of lax socialistic ideas, the Woodhulls and Tiltons of society. It has moreover the odor of free-loveism and depravity. About it, an inseparable odium attaches, as subversive of nature, a foul and rotten thing, which will be deprecated and discountenanced by all high minded and honorable persons of either sex.”[13]

With support from such critics of the bill, the House voted on final passage of the override. Just two voted “no” while two others were absent and not voting.[14] The House had mustered the necessary two-thirds vote. Now, the override attempt went to the Council.[15]

There, on the 32nd day of the session, the five Council members seeking to repeal suffrage voted to override.[16] The four who had voted against the bill when it first came before the Council again voted against the act.[17]  But it was not enough for opponents of women's suffrage. The override effort failed, falling just one vote short of the necessary two-thirds.[18]

The opponents of women's suffrage had taken their best shot and narrowly lost. The four supporters of suffrage in the Council had held firm and Campbell’s veto kept the suffrage act part of the territory’s laws.

No serious effort was mounted again to repeal the suffrage law. In 1873, Campbell told the legislators in his joint message: “. “Two years more of observation of the practical working of the system have only served to deepen my conviction that what we, in this Territory, have done, has been well done, and that our system of impartial suffrage is an unqualified success.”[19]

As evidence of the territory’s revolutionary support for women’s rights, many historians point to the near-unanimous support given women's suffrage in that first territorial legislature. Unfortunately, the record is not nearly so clear when that close brush with repeal in the second legislative session is factored in.  Without Gov. Campbell and that one Council vote, Wyoming, like New Jersey, could have been a footnote in the story of women’s rights rather than the “Equality State,” the pioneering government favoring equal rights for women.


 

[1] For Castle’s formal notice of intent to file the repeal bill, see House Journal (1871), p. 37. For formal introduction of the repeal, see House Journal, p. 47.

[2] Campbell message to the legislature, Nov. .9, 1871, Council Journal, pp. 18. The message in its entirety was also published in the Cheyenne Daily Leader, Nov. 10, 1871, p. 2.

[3] “Legislative Summary,” Cheyenne Daily Leader, Nov. 14, 1871, p. 2.

[4] Cheyenne Daily Leader, Nov. 14, 1871, p. 4, c. 1.

[5] The vote is recorded in House Journal, p. 50. See also Cheyenne Daily Leader, Nov. 18, 1871, p. 1. The following voted for the repeal: Blair, Castle, Clark, Dayton, Friend, Kuykendall, Pease, Wilson and Sheets. Against were: Brown, Haley and Nickerson. Talbot was absent for the vote.

[6] “Woman Suffrage Not a Party Measure,” Cheyenne Daily Leader, Nov. 21, 1871, p. 1, c. 1. In the same issue, the editor noted that a bill was introduced to move the capital to Evanston. He countered that it stood as much chance as Evanston gaining a seaport. Later, he noted that if centrality of location was the issue, the capital ought to be moved to Whiskey Gap. Leader, ibid., p. 4.

[7] “Legislative Summary,” Cheyenne Daily Leader, Nov. 24, 1871, p. 2, c. 1.

[8] “What Will He Do With It?” Cheyenne Daily Leader, Nov. 28, 1871, p. 1, c. 1.

[9] “Legislative Summary,” Cheyenne Daily Leader, Nov. 28, 1871, p. 2, c. 1.

[10] The veto message is on pp. 78-84, Council Journal.  “Legislative Summary,” Cheyenne Daily Leader, Dec. 5, 1871, p. 2, c. 1.

[11] Republican Duncan Blair (Sweetwater) joined Democrats C. E. Castle (Uinta), Gibson Clark (Laramie), T. J. Dayton (Albany), John C. Friend (Carbon), William L. Kuykendall (Laramie), E. L. Pease (Uinta), C. E. Wilson (Carbon), and Speaker Ben Sheets (Sweetwater) in voting for the repeal bill. Roll call vote is in House Journal, p. 50.

[12] Cheyenne Daily Leader, Dec. 11, 1871, p. 1, c. 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Albany County Republicans Ora Haley and M. C. Brown were the only “no” votes. No explanation is given for the absence of H. G. Nickerson (R-Sweetwater) and John Talbot (D-Laramie).

[15] For the transmission of the House veto message to the Council, see Council Journal, p. 78.

[16] Council Journal, p. 95.

[17] Voting to sustain the governor’s veto were: J. E. Gates (People’s Party, Albany), John Fosher (Independent, Sweetwater), and Republicans S. W. Downey (Albany) and W. W. Corlett (Laramie).

[18] Voting to override were Democrats W. R. Steele (Laramie), F. H. Harrison (Sweetwater), E. W. Bennett (Carbon), and Nuckolls (Laramie) and Republican Norman Potter (Uinta). Council Journal, p. 95.

[19] Council Journal (1873), p. 22.