On Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming Territory passed a groundbreaking law. A first for any governmental body in the world, the legislation explicitly recognized women’s right to vote and hold public office.
The next year, Wyoming women were the first of their gender to vote in a general election, serve on a jury and be appointed a Justice of the Peace.
The progressive movement almost hit a snag in 1890, when Wyoming sought statehood. Congress declared that the territory must first revoke women’s suffrage.
The Wyoming Legislature retorted: “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.”
Congress relented. Wyoming became the 44th state, the “Equality State.”
Finally, in 1920 — 50 years after Wyoming — Congress passed the 19th Amendment, granting women’s suffrage. In 1924, Wyoming’s own Nellie Tayloe Ross was the first woman to be elected governor.
“Wyoming has a very, very important role in the movement of the women’s vote,” said Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism. “…It put (women) on the same playing field as men. Can you imagine 150 years ago what that might have meant?”
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage, WOT declared 2019 the “Year of Wyoming Women.”
The historic achievements of pioneering women deserve celebration. However, Wyoming did not maintain its leadership position in the advancement of women’s equality. By the late 1920s, the early momentum had already slowed. To this day, Wyoming has only had one female governor.
“While the rest of the nation was still catching up to Wyoming when it came to voting and women in public office, there was also a tremendous amount of pushback that happened,” noted Wyoming State Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.
Women still had the right to vote, but other freedoms were taken away. Laws privileged men over women. Women were not allowed to work in certain occupations — primarily the well-paying professions. Society dictated that the “fairer sex” belonged in the kitchen.
Today, American women in the workforce legally can no longer be discriminated against on account of gender, thanks to the Civil Rights Act amendment of Title VII. But the “Equality State” holds one of the largest gender wage gaps in the nation, according to a 2018 study by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. On average, Wyoming women earn 68 cents for every dollar men earn, compared to the national average of 79 cents. Wyoming women of color face an even more dire wage gap.
The gender wage gap is a complicated issue that is “bigger than simply a choice about a particular occupation,” explained Connolly, who presented bills on wage transparency, equal-pay violation penalties and state study and promotion of pay equity in the 2018 Wyoming Legislative session. Only the bill furthering penalties for equal-pay violations was passed.
“For too many people, their answer to the wage gap is that women should just move into jobs that men do,” Connolly continued. “If you want to get paid that much, just go do it. The problem with that is it devalues the work that women do. We can’t all be oil field workers.”
Society holds different values for work that is typically performed by a woman.
“The reality is that jobs that employ predominantly men pay at or above national wages,” Connolly said. “And jobs that employ predominantly women pay at or below national wages.”
Women’s future in Wyoming
Wyoming is full of pioneering women and men who would welcome them to the table. Discrimination is rare on an individual level. So, why are more women not in leadership positions?
Wyoming State Sen. Affie Ellis, Cheyenne, famously tells the story of the occasion that inspired her to run for public office. On a trip to Cheyenne, her young daughter looked around the state capitol and asked, “Mom, do they let girls serve in the Senate?”
“Study after study indicates that little boys and girls are interested in and have aptitudes for all sorts of things, but as time goes on — it’s fairly invisible — there’s steering that happens, expectations that happen,” Connolly said. “And when you look at who’s in the oil fields versus who’s in the elementary school or who’s waiting tables versus who’s doing lawn care — you want to recognize yourself.”
“Visibility is so powerful, especially for women,” agreed Lindsay Linton Buk, who has dedicated her life to sharing the stories of inspirational female leaders.
A fifth-generation Wyoming native, Linton Buk moved home after years in New York and L.A. to work on her statewide multimedia project, “Women in Wyoming.” From artists to ranchers to politicians (including Ellis), Linton Buk’s subjects run the gamut — an intentional choice.
“To see examples of someone like yourself doing amazing things in the world is important,” Linton Buk continued. She recognizes that “there’s a lot of work to be done” in the state and in the nation.
“We’re not at that point of true equality,” Linton Buk said. “…Women throughout history — and especially Wyoming’s history — have defied the odds and proven that, in times that were much less equal than they are now, they could still forge and carve a path for themselves.
“My hope is that sharing these stories of what is possible will inspire action for more women and girls to rise up and pursue their ambitions in life.”
Wyoming’s pioneering women of today are those who inspire action. The “Year of Wyoming Women” is a part of this movement, using the economic drive of tourism to encourage communities across the state to highlight strong women.
“Celebrate the women of yesterday, the women of today and the women of tomorrow,” Shober said. “The more we draw attention to women in Wyoming, the more we raise awareness in people who can affect that kind of change.”
So what can Wyomingites — men and women — do to make the original pioneering women proud? Exercise their right to vote, and support legislators who aim to make an institutional difference. Share the stories of strong women.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2019 edition of Destination Sheridan, the official lifestyle and tourism magazine of Sheridan County, created by The Sheridan Press.
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