Esther Hobart Morris carefully arranged borrowed chairs and warmed, borrowed teacups as she prepared for her visitors to arrive. Her tiny mountain cabin, perched at seventy-five hundred feet of elevation in the mountains at South Pass City, Wyoming Territory, was cleaned, decorated, and full of all of the delectable morsels she could contrive for the important guests who would be arriving soon. Her husband, Jim Morris, was barely tolerant of the bustle as he nursed a foot swollen with gout, but he didn’t make his objections audible. The couple had only been in South Pass City a few months, and the time had not been easy for him, though Esther had leapt into local life with her usual enthusiasm. Her son from her first marriage, Archibald Slack, was soon to arrive to report on the afternoon’s event for the newspaper. His story would appear in time for the elections that were to be held the next day in the boomtown of two thousand men, women, and children. White men would be voting to send delegates to Wyoming’s Territorial Convention.
Everything about the scene Esther set that day in her tiny home was right by her standards and the standards of the day. The room was cozily domestic, and any Victorian in 1869 would have felt at ease with the ritual that was about to take place. The pouring of tea by a proper wife and mother, the gathering of friends over small plates of sandwiches and desserts, removed gently from cherished china with delicate tongs, the feathers and frills worn by the women and the ridges from hats just removed remaining in the hair of the gentlemen were both comforting and comfortable. But the gentle talk of community events and shared acquaintance of an elegant tea would give way to the talk that was dominating South Pass City on that fall day—the territorial elections of the next day and the future of Wyoming Territory itself. And that was exactly what Esther Morris intended.
Americans love a good story of triumph over adversity—particularly the stories of our pioneering forbearers who set out to forge a new world for themselves on the frontier. The story of Esther Hobart Morris fits that profile perfectly. It is easy to imagine her on that fateful day, with the lines on her curl-framed face that mapped a life full of pioneering adventure and tragedies survived. Her clear-eyed gaze would have reflected the iron spine forged by years of hardship and striving toward her ideals—and a life of determination. Hers was a narrative of iconic, dramatic moments that drove inexorably toward long-arch. It matched the story of Manifest Destiny, tracing the fate of a nation from ocean shore to ocean shore over the centuries, an inevitable march toward progress, punctuated with dramatic events and the iconic moments that reveal a story in a few words that stir political pride and bring to life a heroic pose in history: the famed Boston Tea Party, a people using the national beverage of its founding people to make a point. The Tea Party held by Jane Hunt in Waterloo, New York, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott formed the plans for the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. And the Tea Party where Esther Hobart Morris took on the idea of Women’s Suffrage for the new Territory of Wyoming in 1869.
On the guest list for the event that afternoon was William Bright, who was standing for election as a Democrat. On the menu were tea cakes and talk of rebellion—could Wyoming be the very first territory to not just advocate for but legalize equal rights for women? Changes were on the horizon for the new territory, which needed to grow if it had hope of statehood. And in the boom-and-bust economy, there were six men to every woman in the territory. Men were thinking about what it might mean to publicity for the state and to attracting more women to settle there. And as more educated and politically minded women had made their way into the West, their advocacy had grown.
The problem with the Esther Hobart Morris tea-party story is that it’s apocryphal at best, but it succeeds as a parable for the suffrage movement in the West and the direction it took after Wyoming opened the floodgates. Morris’s contribution to achieving women’s suffrage in Wyoming cannot be denied, however. The tale of her efforts to put her chosen candidate in office doesn’t begin to reveal the whole story of woman’s suffrage in Wyoming—the territory that would claim honors as the first to grant women the right to vote and the state that would be first to have a woman governor.
Morris fills an important role in the story of progress in the West. She exemplified the independent woman pioneer. She was born in Tioga County, New York, on August 8, 1814, and was orphaned at a young age. She had become a successful businesswoman by her early twenties, running a millinery business from her grandparents’ home, and starting in the early 1830s, she was an outspoken opponent of slavery and an active proponent of women’s rights. She married Artemus Slack in 1841, and when she was widowed in 1845, she learned firsthand how difficult it was for women to handle legal matters, particularly regarding property ownership when she moved to Illinois to handle her late husband’s property. She was living in Peru, Illinois, in 1850, when she married local merchant John Morris. Eighteen years later, they would head west to the boom town of South Pass City, Wyoming Territory, settling there in the spring of 1868.
Suffrage efforts in the East had largely stalled in the late 1860s, because of the disruption of the Civil War, continuing male attitudes about women’s proper role, and infighting in the suffrage movement itself. But in Wyoming, men could see that women were not only successful at protecting the hearth and home, they were also working side by side with men in businesses and community building. In political circles, discussions were beginning about the many reasons the Wyoming Territory might want to extend voting rights to the women in the territory—including attracting more women to a region where adult males outnumbered females six to one. Opponents to suffrage had an arsenal of excuses to hand. The postwar need for recovery and for men to regain their footing on the home front as women were encouraged back into domestic roles were frequently cited as reasons to withhold equal rights. The advances in industrialization that further changed civilization gave rise to the unnamed as yet but deeply held ideals of “true womanhood.” When woman suffrage was mentioned in drawing rooms it met with derision, ridicule, a spark of reforming zeal from those who thought women might provide a softening influence on men through the vote, or outright hostility at the thought of women leaving the domestic arena.
Wyoming Territory’s motives for extending the vote to women probably had more to do with publicity and attracting female settlers to the territory than with any desire to establish a more egalitarian society. In 1869, men outnumbered women in the Wyoming Territory by a ratio of six to one, and the six thousand adult men who would be part of the decision-making process regarding women’s suffrage had a vested interest in growing the territory through the arrival of more women. However, individual men’s interests in the idea of women’s rights had their roots in diverse ideologies. Some men assumed that wives and mothers would vote with more conservative interests; others assumed that women would vote as their husbands and fathers did; some were pressured by their own wives and mothers; some were motivated by racism and the backlash against the Reconstruction amendments passed in the aftermath of the Civil War.
In Wyoming, territorial legislator William Bright and territorial secretary Edward M. Lee brought their own agendas to the table when they championed the legislation that would eventually become law under Governor John A. Campbell. They also brought the support of women like Esther Hobart Morris, who was championed as the mother of Wyoming women’s suffrage and became the first woman justice of the peace in the United States. Wyoming’s men may have made the right choice for the wrong reasons, but women were ready to step in and assume their place at last.
When the territorial legislature met in November 1869, Representative William H. Bright introduced the suffrage measure, which passed. On December 10, 1869, Territorial Governor John A. Campbell made Wyoming famous and earned it the nickname “the Equality State.” A grandmother named Louisa Ann Swain became the first American woman to cast a vote in a general election in September 1870, and Esther Morris and seven of her South Pass neighbors also stepped up to the polling place on that historic day. But in spite of the fact that the men’s motives in giving women the right to vote may have been suspect, strong women like Louisa Ann Swain and Esther Morris (who became the first woman to serve as justice of the peace in the United States) grabbed the opportunity with both hands and hung on tight.
The tea-party meeting that eventually became famous and earned Morris the nickname “Mother of Women’s Suffrage” probably never happened, and though it is likely that she knew Bright because they were both business owners in South Pass, it is even possible that the two had never met officially about the subject before the legislation passed. However, after justice of the peace James W. Stillman resigned in protest after the suffrage bill was signed, Morris was appointed to fill his term in office in February of 1870. Though she wasn’t a woman with much formal education, Morris demonstrated admirable judgment and restraint in her decisions from the bench, presiding over more than two dozen cases, none of which were overturned on appeal. She also proved that she should be a working woman who still held up her responsibilities as a wife and mother, which helped lead in 1870 to women earning the right to serve on juries in Wyoming Territory. When her term expired, Morris chose not to explore reelection, but her work on behalf of women did not end in South Pass. In 1872, she traveled to San Francisco to attend the American Woman Suffrage Association Convention, and then in 1876 she’d also travel to Philadelphia to the National Suffrage Convention. Susan B. Anthony and other suffrage advocates were quick to point to Wyoming’s successes as they urged legislatures to take up voting rights elsewhere. And when Wyoming became a state, it did so with women’s suffrage intact in spite of national opposition. On July 10, 1880, President William Henry Harrison signed a bill admitting Wyoming to the union as the “Equality State.” Two weeks later, Morris was honored as a guest at a banquet celebrating the event.
The end of the Civil War, the vast migration of pioneers looking for free land and opportunity on the frontier, and the changing social and economic conditions of the country recovering from war and on the brink of the Gilded Age, plus a little bit of publicity-seeking and opportunism by promoters of the Wyoming Territory, had ushered in a new era for the expansion of women’s rights. And as for Esther Morris, her activism and political career didn’t end. She served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Ohio in 1895. On April 3, 1902, Esther Hobart Morris died in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She was buried there at the Lakeview Cemetery and a simple stone marked her grave. She didn’t live to see women get the right to vote nationally and she didn’t live to see Nellie Taylor Ross sworn in as Wyoming’s governor in 1925. But her statue now stands in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol and at the Wyoming State Capitol, a symbol of the important first step taken in favor of women’s suffrage in Wyoming.
Human rights took a leap forward when Wyoming opened the polls to women, and Esther Hobart Morris’s exemplary tenure as the first woman to hold judicial office in the 1870s did even more. Snickers and snide remarks and motives notwithstanding, the experiment proved that women could participate in the process and hold official posts with success. It would be harder—though not impossible—to argue against extending the franchise in the rest of the West, and then the rest of the country.