How Did Wyoming's Suffrage Movement Affect Women Of Color?

Jun 8, 2020

Nimi McConigley
Credit Nimi McConigley

Even though women in Wyoming were allowed to vote, run for office and get involved in politics back in 1870, it took much longer after that for women of color to get elected.

The first Black woman to get elected to office in Wyoming was Elizabeth Byrd. She started out in the Wyoming House of Representatives, in 1981. That's close to a century later after women were first granted the right to vote and run for office.

What took so long?

Apparently, there was a lot going on among communities of color in the late 1800s. Professor Jennifer Helton teaches at Ohlone College in California and specializes in the research and history of women's suffrage and women's rights in the American West.

She said there's not a lot of literature and study about the women's suffrage movement in general.

"... My interest in women's suffrage in Wyoming comes from the fact that I grew up there," Professor Helton said. "And it was mentioned in my fourth-grade textbook, very briefly for about two minutes that Wyoming was the first state or territory to give women the right to vote. And then it was kind of never mentioned again. And then when I went to college, and I majored in history and took classes on the history of the American West, again, Wyoming was never mentioned. And the history of women's suffrage in the West generally was never mentioned."

When she read about the history of the women's rights movement in the U.S. and the 19th amendment, "everybody sort of forgets that most women in the American West could vote before the 19th amendment," Helton said.

This motivated Helton to pursue a graduate and a doctorate and stay in academia to find out why. That's when she realized there has not been much research done on women's suffrage in general. "And in talking about women of color, there's even less scholarship on the role of Western women of color and their role in the suffrage movement," said Helton. "There's just starting to be, in the last three, four years, some work being done. But I think that women's history, in general, is a neglected area. And then for women of color, take that times 10. [...] even more neglect."

Going back to 1870, there were a lot of events that occurred which posed as barriers for women of color to exercise their rights. It was widely known that there were some Black women who voted in Cheyenne in 1870. And there is evidence for that. However, it's only in Cheyenne and Laramie. There are not many records that Professor Helton knows regarding the rest of the state.

It's also important to note that when the women's suffrage happened in Wyoming, it was also around the time that the Civil War ended. Slavery was abolished and the Emancipation Proclamation was established. The period right after the Civil War was called the Reconstruction Era, and it was a time in which the nation's laws and Constitution were amended to ensure basic rights for former slaves. But that reality was difficult to implement as slave owners in the South struggled with it and tried to find ways to exert power over freed slaves.

This was an ideal time for Black families to move to the West, Helton explained. "This is an era where they just fought a way around Black Civil Rights. Wyoming is a pretty Republican territory at that point. And at that point, the Republican Party is supportive of Black rights. So if you're a Black woman, your situation might be a little bit better because there's more awareness around that," she said.

However, there's a plot twist. In 1889, at the constitutional convention for Wyoming, the constitution kept women's suffrage rights. But an educational qualification was put in. "And it said, in order to be able to exercise your right to vote, you have to be able to read the Constitution of states," Professor Helton said.

But former slaves were deprived of education like reading and writing. So could they really exercise their right to vote? No. They were allowed, but they couldn't. Helton said "It's an idea that came out of the South as a way to disenfranchise Black voters. But in Wyoming, the debate was centered around immigrants."

Residents in Wyoming were worried about non-English speaking immigrants coming to Wyoming and being able to vote. "This was a fervent debate because there were a lot of the older settlers from Wyoming [who] defended the immigrants. So they said 'No, I used to be an immigrant,'" said Helton.

It's still unclear whether that provision was ever enforced.

Asian immigrants weren't allowed to vote. But Asian-Americans, who was born in the U.S. and above the age of 21, could vote. But again, barriers were present because, in the 1800s, the anti-Asian sentiment was very strong in the West. This was especially targeted towards Chinese immigrants as there was a high rate of them coming to the U.S. to earn more money. These tensions and racial discrimination created a dangerous atmosphere for Asians at the time to exercise their right to vote, or be in the public eye.

For Native Americans, they weren't considered U.S. citizens until 1924. When the women's suffrage movement happened, they were still re-negotiating, forming, and repelling treaties for land with the U.S. government. So they couldn't vote until after 1924.

These events go to show that no woman suffrage law fixes racial discrimination, said Helton. "So, the 19th Amendment, if you look at it in the South, for example, do Black women get to go vote in the next election? No, they do not, right, because Jim Crow is in place and it's excluded. So lifting one form of oppression doesn't fix the other forms of oppression that you may have to be dealing with."

Fast forward to 1994. Wyoming has its first Asian, immigrant woman elected to the legislature. "They could not believe that a person from India could represent Wyoming," said Nimi McConigley. "Sometimes when I say I'm Indian, they probably think I'm from the reservation."

But Nimi McConigley is from Tamil Nadu, a state in the southern part of India. She was born and raised there and has traveled to a lot of parts of the world. She has had extensive experience working in political journalism. She worked for national news under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and attended Columbia Graduate School in the 1960s.

Eventually, her family decided to settle in Casper, Wyoming, in the 1970s. Gradually, McConigley became active in the community. And with the help of her journalism experience, she got a job as a news director at the local TV station.

It was in 1994 that she wanted to run for office. "I was campaign manager for state Sen. Charlie Scott, who's still in the legislature. He was running for governor of Wyoming, and I helped [...] as his campaign manager. And working as Charlie's campaign manager gave me another opportunity to travel with him across the state to hear the needs of constituents," McConigley said.

The experience opened her eyes to a lot of things that were needed in Wyoming.

"I thought to myself, I would love to do this, and perhaps work with someone who could maybe fill some of the tracks here in the state that needed to be done. That'd be great to not be out there covering stories and complaining, and criticizing what's wrong, but perhaps stepping in and trying to, to make a difference." Her involvement in the TV station and the community helped her exposure so residents were familiar with McConigley and who she was. "It was interesting for me to see when running my campaign, people in Wyoming are very open-minded," said McConigley. "They have a lot of respect for people who have the courage to stand up for what they believe."

She was elected in 1994 to the State House and loved it. But that didn't mean it was all perfect.

For example, she was invited to speak at a high school in Cheyenne, and she wore her saree - a traditional, cultural attire from the Indian subcontinent - which is what she'd usually wear. It didn't occur to her as a problem. But later that day, when she returned to the legislature, she had a conversation with the Speaker of the House and some members of the leadership. "And she said to me, 'Nimi, I think there's a little concern about your appearance today, your dress today.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Well, I don't know. But it's probably not appropriate for the legislature.' And I said, 'Really? I didn't know there was a dress code that stopped me from wearing a saree,'" McConigley shared. They stated that her saree didn't look 'American'. McConigley replied "I'm an American. I'm an American citizen, and I'm in the legislature. And then he said, 'Well, it's for appearances.' And I said, 'If a woman can come into the legislature and wear a skirt that was short and consider the legislature and have people gawk at her because her dress is riding up her knee,' I said, 'why would something that covers me completely and is perfectly modest and not be allowed in any way?'"

But the conversation didn't really address or resolve the issue. A couple of days later happened to be National Suffragette Day. "They take a picture every year with all the women in the legislature with the governor," said McConigley. "And so, the Speaker Pro Tempore came up to me and said, 'Would you wear a saree for this photograph? And some of us would like to wear a saree too.'"

It's undeniable that McConigley's election signaled an incremental change. Currently, there are three women of color in Wyoming's legislature. The state still has a long way to go.

 

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Naina Rao, at nbadarin@uwyo.edu.