Earlier this week, The Sheridan Press celebrated 150 years of Wyoming women’s suffrage with a sold-out community event at The Brinton Museum. On Dec. 10, 1869, our territory recognized women’s right to vote — the first governing body in the world to pass such a law.
However, as we heard during the northern premiere of Wyoming PBS’ documentary “State of Equality,” the premise of the Equality State is shaky.
First, we are not certain how women’s suffrage passed.
“I think the old adage that sometimes you do the right thing for the wrong reasons is part of how Wyoming women got the right to vote,” said former Wyoming State Sen. E. Jayne Mockler in the documentary.
The suffrage movement also has troubling roots in racism. National heroes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed black men’s suffrage “on explicitly racist grounds.” It is not clear if men were voting for women’s suffrage or against minorities’. Astonishingly, women of color were not explicitly enfranchised until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
While Wyoming started off as a leader in equality — regardless of the motive — progress slowed in the early 20th century. Today, our state has one of the largest gender wage gaps in the nation.
Luckily, we had regional experts to help us parse the documentary. After the credits rolled, I moderated a panel discussion among Rosie Berger, a longtime leader from Big Horn; Kristin Wilkerson, a Sheridan resident with an impressive background in law and finance; and Dr. Janine Pease, a renowned American Indian educator and advocate from Crow Agency, Montana.
“I have personally been witness to barriers, as well as been part of solutions, when it comes to women in leadership,” Berger said. “Running for office is the same as operating a small business — it takes funding, support and mentorship. Women leaders bring a different viewpoint and lived experiences to issues, and these insights serve communities and the state to bring about better legislation and services.”
Wilkerson, who has been mistaken as a secretary rather than an attorney, described the importance of questioning cultural norms.
“We have to continue to push beyond some of these molds,” she said. “And it starts by working with and educating children…telling boys and girls it’s OK to do things outside of the traditional roles.”
And Pease described her community’s constant fight for rights.
“This all, I think, is a lesson in civics because there are laws on the books that surely serve justice to all our citizens, but there are laws that never reach corners of our country,” Pease said. “All the laws that we looked at and the amendments, even the Bill of Rights, all bypass Native Americans.
“There’s a vigilance that every citizen, or every person really, has to have to enjoy the privilege of citizenship and the right to vote. That seems odd that we have to do that, but no generation should take it for granted.”
So: What can we do — what can you do — to reach the equality for which our state is nicknamed?
Take action, our panelists urged. Support women and minorities, and encourage them to seek leadership positions.
“Instead of saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful,’ just do it!” Pease said. “…We often just don’t take that step in our communities. But it might be 10 people would go with us, or 40. We should step up.”
After the event ended, I walked toward The Brinton’s parking lot with Press publisher Kristen Czaban; our former coworker and current freelancer Carrie Haderlie, who profiled 12 inspiring women for the excellent series “Year of Wyoming Women;” and my supportive husband, Erik Hoversten. As Haderlie’s 6-year-old daughter skipped ahead of us, I felt a sweet, complex optimism. Our past is not pretty, and our present is full of uncertainties. But we just left a roomful of men and women who care about our future.
Let’s follow our leaders’ wisdom, and step up for equality.
Author’s note: For more stories, photos and a video of our event — plus the link to the Wyoming PBS documentary — see bit.ly/PressYearOfWyomingWomen.