In 1869, journalism looked very different than it does today. There weren't the quotes or perspectives from both sides. Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim dug into the archives to try and use journalism to learn more about women's suffrage. What he found wasn't much, but found out it was critical. Jennifer Helton, a Wyoming native and expert in the state's suffrage history, gives some background to the state was like in 1869 and how she used journalism to learn more about it.
Jennifer Helton: So I think that context is really important for understanding why Wyoming is the first to grant the right to vote for women. So, 1869 is four years after the Civil War has ended. There's a lot of tension still happening in the country about what kind of country we're going to look like moving forward. And the Civil War has started partly over the issue of control of the West, right? Like the big question before the Civil War is: is slavery going to be allowed in western territories?
And then after the war is over, Republicans really kind of want to reshape the west in their image of what they think America should look like, and that includes voting rights. So, there was this kind of sense in the West that... somebody was going to have to be the first and you can kind of see that in the Wyoming newspapers.
Cooper McKim: Okay, so what role did journalism play for suffrage in the US, and then also in Wyoming?
JH: Well, so sort of in response to this fact that, the media as it as it existed in that period is controlled by men's voices, the women's suffrage movement actually created its own press. So, in the 1860s, this woman named Susan B. Anthony, who we've all heard of, she created it and her partner, they created a newspaper called "The Revolution." And the revolution, the way they did it is they printed it in New York, and then they kind of sent it out across the country.
So, in Wyoming, we have our local press reporting on the women's suffrage issue, and some of the local papers in Wyoming are interested in it. Nobody's really convinced it's totally a good idea. But they do see it as the sort of reform of the era that eventually somebody's going to do it.
So, the ideas of the women's suffrage movement are in Wyoming even though the suffrage movement itself is not.
CM: So the newspapers that Wyoming did have writing about suffrage, how did that help glean any nuance or perspective of what was going on in the day?
JH: You know, it's… so newspapers, especially frontier newspapers are often kind of one-man shows. So it's, you know, there's an editor, and he knows how to print a newspaper, and he shows up in town and starts printing his newspaper. So, a lot of times you're reading the paper and it's kind of like what that guy thinks about what's happening in Cheyenne or South Pass or whatever.
So, the big debate in a among historians who study the history of women's suffrage among Wyoming is what role did the women have in women's suffrage? And because we don't have women newspaper editors in Wyoming running newspapers, we don't know exactly what the women are thinking or doing. But we have a lot of peripheral accounts that suggest to us that women are vocalizing their opinions whether or not they're sort of actively lobbying the legislature... we don't know. But we do know that there are women in the territory who support suffrage. So, the press didn't record what the women themselves thought at the time. So, we're kind of always trying to piece that together from other types of sources.
CM: I wanted to read one passage from the Cheyenne Leader on December 8 1869. After describing that the Suffrage Act had passed through the house, he wrote, "All that now remains is for the governor to sign the bill to cause it to become law. This, although he has not yet done, we feel certain he will do, although we have not yet been fully convinced of the wisdom or necessity of the measure, yet we have something of a curiosity to witness his practical operation and results. We hope, as we believe that Governor Campbell will approve the bill."
JH: I think that attitude and that quote is really kind of representative of what a lot of people thought. They were like, well, we're on the cusp of doing this and you know, seems kind of crazy, but let's go ahead and give it a try and see what happens.
People had all kinds of crazy ideas about what would happen if women started voting, right? The phrase you see a lot is unsexed women will become unsexed, whatever that means. They'll stop being women, and they'll start acting like men, and they were just really concerned that the world would be turned upside down if women started voting.
CM: Well, any any other points that you wanted to make or bring up for you sign off here?
JH: I started this working on this years ago because I am from Wyoming. When I was growing up in Wyoming, it was kind of mentioned but not really gone into. And, you know, one of the things that's sort of distinctive about suffrage in Wyoming is, you know, we were the first. There was Democrats in 1871, so the women didn't vote Democratic, they voted Republican, for the most part. And so, the Democrats decided their calculation had been wrong, they shouldn't have supported suffrage and so they tried to repeal it. And that didn't work. So, suffrage stayed in place after 1871.
And after that, Wyoming really went all in on women's suffrage on both the local level and also on the national level, Wyoming, you know, was a big supporter of the women's suffrage movement. And so Wyoming's role is in women's suffrage is, I think something we should be proud of. We did it first, maybe not always for the best reasons. But we did do it first and then we continually supported it after that.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at firstname.lastname@example.org