This fall, women are ruling political discussion in the United States. For one, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina are dominating presidential primary headlines. And in late October, Suffragette, a star-studded film about the long and ultimately violent political struggle for British women’s right to vote, makes its U.S. premiere. While we’re pondering this relatively unknown (to Americans) part of the women’s rights movement, and envisioning a potential near-future with a woman in the White House, we should remember that American women have their own largely unknown history fighting for the right to vote, one that counted its biggest victories in the most surprising terrain: the Wild West.
Few people outside of women’s rights historians understand that American women fought for political enfranchisement for nearly 75 years—from when Elizabeth Cady Stanton made suffrage a rallying cry at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. And while a chunk of that time was referred to as “the doldrums” by eastern suffragists, in the West, women’s rights activists had far more exciting experiences. In fact, by the time national suffrage passed, 14 western states had already enfranchised women voters.
In pop culture, the American West belongs to rugged cowboys and macho gunslingers. Left out of those depictions are the women, immigrants, former slaves and Native Americans who also made homes on the range. Far from just the wives, mothers, daughters and playthings of frontiersmen as portrayed in books and films, women arrived in the West, single or with their families, for the same reasons men did—for adventure, for livelihood or to escape the oppressive social mores that dominated the eastern United States.
“The West is supposed to be he-man country, not some place where the little ladies mattered, or were even present,” notes Dr. Virginia Scharff, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico and chair of Western Women’s History at the Autry National Center. “But there were indigenous women in the West long before there were Marlboro Men, and they were absolutely essential to the survival of their communities. And once American migrants started showing up, women were a big part of conquest and resistance in the West.”
As Scharff alludes, some of western women’s early political advancement was inherently tied up in the goals of white Americans. “Early western suffragists often referred to ‘frontier’ egalitarianism and ‘chivalry,’” as reasons why western states were more amenable to politically active women, “but this was an ethnocentric conclusion that privileged white women,” writes Dr. Rebecca Mead in her book How the Vote was Won. Indigenous women would not realize the right to vote as American citizens until 1924 (sometimes much later in certain states). Similarly, women of color struggle against tacitly sanctioned racial and ethnic discrimination that continues to impact their ability to vote. Nevertheless, for the women who stood to benefit most from suffrage, frontier territories—anxious to attract more white families and often understanding of the equal work demanded of both male and female homesteaders—were the earliest successful battlegrounds for suffrage.
The first territory to enfranchise women was Wyoming, in 1869, and their “equal rights” state motto still reflects that significance. As a sparsely populated area hungry for development, some see Wyoming as an uncharacteristically easy political victory. “In Wyoming, all you needed was a majority of the territorial legislature (nine votes) and the signature of a Radical Republican governor [John A. Campbell] who believed in votes for women,” said Scharff. But women quickly became involved in the political process, and Esther Morris was soon elected the first female justice on record in the United States or territories. Twenty years later, when Wyoming sought entry into the United States, it refused to reverse women’s right to vote, even though that made the path to statehood far more contentious than it would have been otherwise.
Shortly after Wyoming, in 1870, Utah enfranchised women in a move largely tied to Mormon settlers’ wish to preserve polygamy, which U.S. Congress was then trying to ban. In 1887, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, restricting Mormons’ citizenship and revoking women’s suffrage. Not until 1896, when the Mormon church renounced polygamy and Utah was granted statehood, did women regain the vote.
Wyoming and Utah might seem like idiosyncratic wins, but they spurred several more populous western states to begin serious women’s rights campaigns. “Once Wyoming had broken the ice, advocates in nearby territories and states could point to the example, and show that woman suffrage did not lead to chaos, or to men losing control, for that matter,” said Scharff.
In 1893, after many years of advocating and one major failed attempt (despite the presence of famed national suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone), Colorado became the first state to grant women the right to vote via popular referendum. The strategies and leaders developed during that campaign would strongly influence several other states’ suffrage efforts. It was a major initial victory for Carrie Chapman Catt, who would go on to lead the National American Woman Suffrage Association and muscle the 19th Amendment into being. Colorado advocates conscientiously downplayed ties to temperance leagues, previously a major source of organizational support but which also mobilized powerful brewer and liquor interests against their cause. Instead, suffragists focused on strengthening ties to the labor and Populist movements favored by farmers and urban blue-collar workers and also by better organizing support from middle-class women. The referendum passed by a wide margin.
Over the next 15 years, most states in the West enfranchised women. Idaho set the stage for other northwestern states in 1896. In 1910, Washington, in which women were enfranchised in 1888 and then quickly disenfranchised by popular referendum in 1889, once and for all granted women the right to vote. Some historians credit this victory with shaking the national movement out of the “doldrums.”
However, it may have been the masterful campaign in California the next year that truly captured national attention. As in Colorado, an earlier effort spearheaded by Susan B. Anthony and her national group, the National Woman Suffrage Association (which later became the National American Woman Suffrage Association), had failed in 1896. The Republican-dominated legislature, which suffragists accused of selling out women’s rights in favor of liquor industry support, refused to allow another referendum until 1911.
By that time, buoyed by wins in nearby states as well as in-state financial support from the likes of Phoebe Hearst (mother of the publishing magnate) and Jane Stanford (co-founder of Stanford University), California organizers eschewed the nationally favored demure tactics meant to fly under the radar of major political resistance and boldly marched in parades, hosted guerilla public speaking engagements and “produced an ambitious mass campaign utilizing popular culture, consumer psychology and advertising”—including billboards, banners and leaflets—that covered significant cities like San Francisco, according to How the Vote was Won. Their public acts, far from the violent demonstrations in Britain, still garnered suffragists outsized notoriety in the press. One picnic rally, during which participants tried to get around a ban on public speaking by singing pro-suffrage songs, earned them comparison to a gang of “dynamiters” by the Los Angeles Times.
As with other states, Left Coast suffragists focused on rural areas and engaging labor unions. Another important switch in tactics was California’s conscientious courting of various ethnic groups, whereas the campaigns of the 1800s tended to portray women’s suffrage as a way to secure Anglo American hegemony in the face of immigrants, Native Americans and newly freed black slaves. While African American suffragists were hardly welcomed with open arms by all California advocates, they worked alongside whites in smaller communities and formed their own women’s rights associations in areas with substantial African American populations.
Even with a well-funded, dynamic campaign, suffragists in California barely eked out a victory with a margin of just over 3,500 votes. However, the lessons learned and dose of enthusiasm led neighboring states Arizona, Nevada and Oregon, along with Alaska and Montana, to pass full suffrage by 1914. Before the 19th Amendment passed Congress, the Midwestern states of Kansas, South Dakota and Oklahoma would also grant women the right to vote.
The reasons for western states’ success and for their relative lack of acknowledgment may be one in the same. While all states that passed suffrage benefited from some national financial and institutional support, they were also careful not to rely too heavily on those organizations. For one, especially in the late 1800s, there was toxic infighting in Susan B. Anthony’s NWSA that led to a major rift in the suffrage movement preceding the doldrums period among eastern suffragists. For another, strategies that some national suffragists accepted just weren’t fit for the West, where bold moves and diversity seemed to be more tolerated.
But eastern women truly wrote the book on the history of women’s suffrage in America. Anthony, Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, all founders of NWSA, compiled the first volumes of History of Women’s Suffrage. In later years, Anthony’s protégée, Ida Husted Harper, (who, granted, spent most of her life in Indiana) edited the final volumes covering most of the early 20th century through the passage of the 19th Amendment. The tomes were for many decades the definitive account of the women’s suffrage movement, but tended to downplay any involvement not spearheaded by the authors, their organization or their protégées, much less activities that failed under their watch and succeeded without their involvement later (such as the Colorado and California campaigns). Not until Eleanor Flexner’s 1959 history A Century of Struggle did alternative suffrage histories get serious consideration, and even then, the Western states’ successes were encompassed in an eight-page chapter of a book of more than 300 pages. In this case, history was written by the victors, but not all of them.