In 2012, as the Presidential race that ultimately led to President Obama’s second term was heating up, I was listening to a morning radio show (FM radio, mostly music with morning DJs, not the typical political talk radio) as I dressed.
A woman called in to complain that her friends were giving her a hard time about the election. This woman (I’ll call her Susan, though I have no idea what her name is) said that her friends objected to her practice of voting however her husband told her to vote.
Susan voted the way her husband told her to vote. She didn’t do her own research, engage in her own thought process, or make her own decisions. She blindly relied on her husband—with whom, she said, she agreed on absolutely everything—to tell her how to vote.
I laughed, sort of, thinking that Susan was surely an anomaly. The stunned DJ asked for other callers and a small number of other women did in fact call in to say that they too voted based on their husbands’ direction.
When asked what she would do if her husband were in an accident or if they divorced and he could not longer advise her, one of the callers said that she just wouldn’t vote until she could find another man to tell her what to do.
After that, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.
Ask how women acquired the right to vote, and certain names will come up over and over. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Susan B. Anthony. Lucretia Mott. Alice Paul. Carrie Chapman Catt. These women, and others who followed their leadership, worked tirelessly to secure equal rights for women.
In the last decade, women and politics achieved center stage when Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be nominated for President of the United States by a major political party. “I’m with Her” became a rallying cry, and on the evening she accepted that nomination, Secretary Clinton wore a white pantsuit, widely seen as a nod to the white dresses worn by the original suffragettes.
The glass ceiling that Clinton was expected to shatter remained intact in 2016, of course, but last year’s election of Kamala Harris as Vice President shattered not just the gender ceiling but that of race as well.
In both cases, however, a clear question remains: how does the general populace view a woman who would dare to seek one of our highest elected offices? The memes and the casual slurs aside, the path has not been without pain.
The American woman suffrage story starts with New Jersey women “worth fifty pounds” voting as early as 1778 before the state legislature restricted voting to men only in 1807.
Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, and that meeting is widely recognized as the kickoff for the long women’s suffrage campaign that culminated in the 1920 ratification of the nineteenth amendment, which granted American woman the right to vote.
But did you know that women were granted the right to vote by the legislature of Wyoming Territory in 1869? (You didn’t know? That’s ok. The story doesn’t get much press these days outside of Wyoming or perhaps the Mountain West states.)
When Wyoming sought statehood, its legislature vowed that “[w]e will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.” Wyoming’s history as the “Equality State” is often overlooked in recounting how women acquired the right to vote.
Woman suffrage, conferred by an all-male legislature,
In 1977, when I was in fourth grade, my mother decided to take a one-year sabbatical from her medical career to research and write a book about how women got the vote in Wyoming in 1869. That one year lasted until her death in 2003.
Because of my mother’s fierce commitment to getting the story, I spent my summers in dusty state archives, scouring old newspapers for mentions of the woman suffrage debate and tracing key figures.
My mother pulled a luggage cart with one of the earliest “portable” computers into libraries, ultimately generating over a million pages of primary research organized in a database that my father created for her long before database programs were widely available.
The historical figures became familiar to me. I knew when she mentioned “Nathan” that she was referring to Nathan Addison Baker, editor of the Cheyenne Daily Leader, and dropping by the grave of William H. Bright, who introduced the woman suffrage bill, when we visited Washington, DC was no more surprising than visiting my grandparents’ graves.
By the time I was an English major in college, I was helping my mom to edit her book, the first draft of which was a 3-volume tome that made War and Peace look like a light beach read.
It never occurred to me that the Wyoming story had been swept away as a footnote of history in favor of better-known steps in the woman suffrage campaign like the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and better-known figures like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
In 2010, I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming for the summer when I happened across a series of articles in The New York Times that detailed the woman suffrage movement. I was stunned when Wyoming was hardly mentioned.
I visited the state museum and found only one reference to the woman suffrage bill. My father and I had tried to place my mother’s research with several libraries and archives after her death with no success, and until that summer, I hadn’t given it much more thought.
That summer, I realized that the Wyoming story is largely unknown.
I found the final, pared-down draft of her book and printed it out, planning to prepare it for publication, but my own life intervened. My father was diagnosed with dementia, and I became his primary caregiver. When I thought about Wyoming or woman suffrage, it was with regret that all my mother’s work was going to waste.
But the story kept popping up. Over the last few years, more and more stories came out that implicated women’s rights, race, and political affiliation—and each called the Wyoming story to mind.
After my father’s death, as I was clearing out his home, I found all of my mom’s work: her files, her handwritten notes, the database she’d so carefully curated, the books and journals and photocopies that held parts of the story.
I packed them up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the story. Seth Paine. Amalia Post. Esther Hobart Morris. Governor John Campbell and his blind brother, attorney Walter Campbell. It was as if their voices whispered to me. And so it became clear that the story must be told.
I’ve written about passing for something that I’m not, and that discomfort shows up here as well. Who am I to write this history? Who am I to revise and perhaps even reinterpret all of the work my mother did? She wasn’t a historian by training, but she became one by practice. That isn’t my objective.
My objective is simply to massage her work so that it’s more approachable for readers. And yet my insecurity asks whether I’m trying to pretend to be something I’m not. As is often the case with self-doubt, that question comes from fear, and the fear that motivates the question is enough to ensure that I won’t misrepresent myself. (Ah, imposter syndrome. Often, though certainly not exclusively, the province of women.)
My mother should have lived long enough to have told the stories she uncovered, but I can be midwife to her work. Midwife to stories that need to be told, and narrator of the story behind the story, making the connections between long-ago people and events and what’s happening today.
Sometimes taking on a new role isn’t about passing as qualified… It’s about growing into the new role, about acquiring the confidence to do what might be equally unthinkable and right. Is it any coincidence that the cliché holds that necessity is the mother of invention?