Women in the Equality State

In 1869, Wyoming was a sparsely populated new territory. The Hayden Expedition had yet to explore what was to become Yellowstone National Park, and Jackson, while frequented by several Native American tribes, was void of any permanent settlers. This rough and tumble, largely unexplored landscape became an unlikely leader in the women’s suffrage movement. Twenty-one years before it became a state, and 51 years before women were granted suffrage nationwide, Wyoming became the first territory in the United States to give women the right to vote. One year later, Wyoming was the first to call on women to be jurors, hired the first female court bailiff, and had the first female justice of the peace in the country. These forays into equal rights earned Wyoming the nickname “The Equality State.”

Many theories have attempted to explain how such a wild land, one which was seen as “no place for a woman,” became a leader in establishing women’s rights. Some suggest that the harsh environment of the west made it more egalitarian. Others believe that giving women the right to vote was a way to show appreciation for those that stuck around . . . and to encourage a few more to come. Other western territories followed Wyoming’s lead much faster than eastern states, lending some credence to these ideas.

In 1920, the year women gained suffrage nationwide, Wyoming made history again when the town of Jackson elected the first all-female slate of town officials. Discontent and the notion that the women could do a better job than the men who were running the town led some local women to create an all-female ticket for the next election. This was promptly countered by an all-male ticket that included the spouse of one of the women running. The voters overwhelmingly voted for the women, in some of the races by nearly two to one. In addition to electing a female mayor and four female councilwomen, the town also voted women into the roles of health officer, clerk, treasurer, and town marshal. Mayor Grace Miller commented that “the voters of Jackson believed that women are not only entitled to equal suffrage, but they are also entitled to equality in the management of government affairs.”

When they came into office, the women quickly realized there was only about $200 in the town coffers. They made house calls to collect on unpaid taxes and fines, raising the treasury to $2,000. Then they set to work on accomplishing the goals they set in their platform. The women improved the town’s culverts and streets, established a town dump, passed health laws making it illegal to dump garbage in vacant lots, and constructed a road to the cemetery.

Five feet tall and only 22 years old, Pearl Williams made perhaps the biggest splash as town marshal. While her main role was likely rounding up cattle grazing on the town square and informing the owners to keep them out of town, on weekends she gathered drunken cowboys and dragged them to the jail. The cells had no doors, so she told them to stay there, and they generally did. Reporters flocked to the gender stereotype-bending marshal, and she is reported to have told one, tongue in cheek, that she “did not have any problems with lawbreakers after she shot three men and buried them herself.”

Many of the women who lasted in Jackson did so while bucking societal norms. Geraldine Lucas was born the middle child of nine into an Iowa pioneer family, Geraldine first disobeyed her father, who did not believe women should be educated. She studied at Oberlin College and later went on help her sisters pursue education as well. While she briefly returned to the life that was expected of her – marriage and a family – she struck out on her own again when she was six months pregnant by divorcing her husband and heading to New York City to pursue a teaching career. Upon her retirement in 1912, she joined some siblings in Jackson Hole and homesteaded at the base of the Tetons. She lived out her life in a cabin that lacked electricity and running water, but was filled with a library of over 1,300 books. When a young Paul Petzoldt approached her, wishing to stay on her property during his first summit of the Grand Teton, she agreed . . . but only if he promised to guide her up the peak. Paul was true to his word, and in 1924, at age 58, Geraldine Lucas became the second recorded woman to summit the Grand Teton.

Today, Jackson’s women continue to push boundaries, from Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski the Seven Summits, to the more than 1,000 women who participated in the women’s march in Jackson in January, 2017. However, many signs of equal rights in the equality state have fallen. Wyoming rates 49th out of 50 states in the gender wage gap: women in Wyoming earn an average of 69 cents for every dollar men earn, a full ten cents per dollar below the national average. Women are also underrepresented in Wyoming politics, with only 12 women serving in the state legislature, out of 90 seats.

An important step in narrowing the gender gap is to help girls become more confident and engaged, and spending time in nature can help do that. Getting girls outside helps them see their bodies as sources of strength. Challenging girls to push themselves teaches them to take healthy risks. Spending time outdoors with a female role model helps young women see themselves as the leaders they can become. All of these things may, ultimately, help women buck stereotypes, ask for a raise, or run for public office. If we focus time and energy on empowering girls and women, from bringing them outside more to providing opportunities to practice leadership in their schools and communities, perhaps Wyoming can return to its glory days as a leader in gender equality.

Teton Science Schools inspires curiosity, engagement, and leadership through transformative place-based education. We do this for all ages, and for all genders.

Sources for this blog: Betts, Robert E. Along the Ramparts of the Tetons: The Saga of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. University Press of Colorado. 1978; Jackson Hole Historical Society Museum: Women’s history exhibit:http://jacksonholehistory.org/womens-history-exhibit/Jackson Hole Magazine: Jackson’s Whole History:http://jacksonholehistory.org/womens-history-exhibit/Western Americana: History of the American West:http://westernamericana2.blogspot.com/2009/12/lets-elect-women-jackson-wyomings-all.htmlWyoming Women’s Foundation:http://wywf.org/status-of-wy-working-women/http://blog.rei.com/news/force-of-nature-lets-level-the-playing-field/.

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