Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Wyoming Claims Some Firsts, but Other Changes Slow to Come

Wyoming entered the union as an equal suffrage state, so it claims a number of firsts in connection with women. For example, Wyoming had:
     *  the first woman Justice of the Peace: Esther Hobart Morris
·       *  the first all-woman jury
·       *   the first woman statewide elected official: Estelle Reel Meyer was elected as           Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1894.

They try to claim the first woman voter but it turns out there have to be some caveats.
Louisa Ann Swain, first woman
voter (since 1807)
According to, some Native American women had rights similar to voting before white settlers arrived. At least some women could vote when America was still a British colony, and New Jersey gave women voting rights in its state constitution in 1776 and then took them away in 1807. So in 1870 WY had the first woman to vote after 1807...Still, better than a lot of other states.

There are a few theories floated for why WY chose to let its women vote. One was that, since the territory was mostly male, giving women the vote would encourage them to move out there. That seems a little bit of a stretch, given how arduous the journey was, and how tough life on the frontier would be. I mean, people these days can’t be bothered to get off their couches to vote, so I can’t see voting rights being a sufficient draw to make such a huge, life-altering (and maybe life-ending) decision. Another is that they somehow needed women’s votes to qualify for statehood, which seems more plausible to me, but I haven’t figured out yet how that worked.

Interestingly, while women could vote in WY there were a number of things they were legally prohibited from doing, including coal mining, which they were legally barred from until 1978.[1] Since Wyoming is the country’s biggest coal producer, this prevented women from getting access to the better paying jobs in the mines. 

Michele Irwin, former miner.
Photo for her recent campaign for
state office
I spoke about this with Michele Irwin, who now runs a buffalo ranch with her husband outside of Evanston, but who worked in the mining industry for over 20 years. She started out as a secretary, which was the only job she could get, and then switched into planning. That paid better, but not as well as the hourly wage jobs in the mines, so (because she legally could) she ended up applying for one of those. She finished up her career in the mines working as a shift supervisor, supervising an all-male team, a role she’s proud of but which she also described as being “hell on earth.”

I was really struck by something Michele said, which was that doing a man’s job and earning a man’s wage helped to boost her self-esteem. It also allowed her to support herself in a much better way than a secretary’s wage ever would have done. Think about a world where the law prevents you from having that sort of opportunity, only because of your sex? Crazy, right? But the law was only changed less than 40 years ago- that’s in my lifetime. I didn’t grow up in WY, but if I had I’d have seen that the better paying jobs were reserved for men, and I’d have been encouraged to choose some more traditionally female job that didn’t pay as well. Luckily, we had some gutsy foremothers who stood up and said- “This isn’t fair, and we want it to change.”

I should note that Michele got laid off from her mining job a couple of years ago, and decided to get into politics, a job for which the rough and tumble of mining ought to have prepared her well. She hasn’t won yet; WY changed its district structure so that it was harder for women and minorities to get elected (this was an interesting discussion because it related to the one I had with Paula Lee in Sacramento (see my Why Don’t Women Run? Blog from Sept. 23.) But at least she’s trying! As she said to me, “It was a great experience. I could walk into any room and hold my own. I may look like a little girl but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have [uh, equipment] as big as anyone else’s.” Go Michelle!
Amy Williamson, from the
Laramie LWV, and I in the 
Wyoming House for Historic Women
While I was in Laramie I met with the local League of Women Voters, and had a private tour of the Wyoming House for Historic Women. They agreed that the way WY does state elections these days makes it harder for women and minorities (and in WY, Democrats are minorities too) to get elected. It was awesome to meet all these bright, engaged women working to improve their community.
I also had lunch with University of Wyoming professor Colleen Denny and one of her students, Jamie Smith. Colleen is an art historian who is in the Gender and Women’s Studies department, which gives her a unique ability to look at visual imagery is used by women- and against them- in forging their identities. When I get back to Maine I plan to order her recent book, “Women, Portraiture and the Crisis of Identity in Victorian England: My Lady Scandalous Reconsidered.”
Colleen, Jamie and I in front of the statue of the
first woman voter (after 1807)
Jamie’s majoring in women’s studies, and is clearly very bright and thoughtful. She talked about how people these days have a false sense that women have equal opportunities to men. She sees a lot of ways women are treated unequally; they’re still judged more on their appearance (by women and men.) “Fat shaming” is pretty rampant, and while it’s often couched in health terms, she thinks it’s still the feminist issue we’ve been talking about for at least a couple of decades.  
Colleen suggested that I look up the new statues that grace the Gateway Center at the University of Wyoming. The back story of these was that the two final proposals for the statues were for a man riding a bucking bronco (the UW athletic teams are called the “Cowboys” and the “Cowgirls.”)

 Some of the wealthy donors paying for the statues, some of whom were women, suggested gently that perhaps the statue didn’t completely reflect the UW student body, a little over half of which are women. So they compromised by doing two statues, one of which is a “cowgirl.” The statues are beautifully done, actually. The young woman astride a bucking horse breaking through the wall is a fun idea, but the accompanying plaques suggest that the space she’s broken through to isn’t all that different from the other side of the wall. So what’s the point?

 The plaque on the male statue is about the horse (Steamboat, a famously unrideable bronco) as much as the rider. Together, the plaque says, the horse and rider represent the best of Wyoming. There’s no mention of the clothes the rider is wearing, who made them, or what material they’re made of.

The plaque for the young woman suggests that she’s smiling because she’s mastering a horse her brother couldn’t ride. (OK, maybe, but is that really all that motivates her?) Also, several sentences are devoted to what the cowgirls wore. Really? Haven’t we moved a little further down the path here, so women’s prowess can be described without reference to her outfit and who made it, enshrined in a brass plaque? I mean, this was completed in 2014, for heaven’s sake. And while I’m at it, how come she had to break through a freaking wall to prove herself? Who built the wall and why? Why couldn’t she just ride a horse like anyone else? Clearly she was capable of it if she was just given a chance.

Just wondering…So it seems like Wyoming might be able to claim a bunch of firsts, but still has some attitudes it needs to change regarding ts women.

[1] Phil Roberts, The Wyoming Constitutional Convention and Adoption of Wyoming’s Constitution, 1889, and the Aftermath

1 comment:

  1. I really love the connections you are making at this blog (which is why I started reading here this morning and I keep going. Love the idea of the female statue yet find it ludicrous that they wrote about her clothes etc. Whoa. I'm guessing D. Michael isn't a woman. Pity they didn't ask for other points of view before they made that durable metal plaque! Thought provoking piece.