History and Opinion
By Phil Roberts
June 1, 2008
When Wyoming Almost Repealed Women Suffrage
The first Territorial Legislature in 1869 passed the suffrage bill, giving women the right to vote for the first time anywhere in America. But it almost didnt stay that way. Two years later, the second legislature nearly repealed the law. In fact, repeal failed by just one vote.
William Bright, the South Pass City Democrat who introduced the suffrage bill in 1869, didnt run for re-election, but Ben Sheeks, his South Pass City colleague who opposed the suffrage bill in 1869, did win another term. Sheeks was the only incumbent House member in the second legislature.
Just as soon as the second legislature convened, newly elected Uinta County House member C. E. Castle said he intended to get the suffrage law repealed.
Why did the 2nd legislature try to repeal women suffrage? Castle did not state a reason, but historian Dr. T. A. Larson claimed it was because of alcohol. Many men believed that women voters favored Sunday closing of saloons, a very unpopular move in the hard-drinking railroad towns in southern Wyoming.
Gov. John A. Campbell, the man who made history on Dec. 10, 1869, by signing the suffrage act into law, urged legislators not to repeal the law. women have voted in the territory, served on juries, and held office, Campbell pointed out. It is simple justice to say that the women entering, for the first time in the history of the country, upon these new and untried duties, have conducted themselves in every respect with as much tact, sound judgment, and good sense, as men.
Nonetheless, Castle introduced the repeal. The next day repeal passed the House by a vote of nine to three with one member absent and not voting. When the bill went to the Council, it passed there by a narrower vote of 5-4. It looked like Wyomings two-year experiment with women suffrage would be coming to an end.
But Gov. Campbell had other ideas. He vetoed the repeal attempt, returning the bill to the House. Both houses needed two-thirds votes to override and House Speaker Ben Sheets immediately sought to override the veto. On Dec. 9, just a day short of two years since Wyoming had become the first place to give women equal rights, nine legislators voted to override the governors veto--voting to repeal women suffrage. Just two voted no while two others were absent and not voting. The House had mustered the necessary two-thirds vote. The veto override went to the Council.
There, on the 32nd day of the session, the five Council members seeking to repeal suffrage voted to override the governors veto. The four who had voted against the bill when it first came before the Council again voted to keep women suffrage. The override effort failed, falling just one vote short of the necessary two-thirds.
The opponents of women suffrage had taken their best shot and narrowly lostby one vote. The four supporters of suffrage in the Council held firm and Campbells veto kept women suffrage part of the territorys laws.
In 1873, Campbell told the legislators in his joint message: . Two years more of observation of the practical working of the system have only served to deepen my conviction that what we, in this Territory, have done, has been well done, and that our system of impartial suffrage is an unqualified success.
From that day on, no serious effort was ever mounted to repeal the suffrage law, granting women the vote and equal political rights. Wyoming entered the Union on July 10, 1890, and embedded in its Constitution was the suffrage bill in the form of Article 6, Section 1, guaranteeing equal political rights for all.
JFK Campaigned for Democrats in Wyoming in 1958
Three Wyoming Democrats are pictured with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in this photograph probably taken in 1958 when Kennedy was campaigning in Wyoming on behalf of various Democrats. Shown, left to right, are: Jack Gage, J. J. "Joe" Hickey, JFK, and Tracy McCraken. Gage won election later that year as Secretary of State while Hickey was elected governor. McCraken, long-time publisher of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, was State Democratic chairman. Gertrude Johnson collection, Wyoming State Archives.
Mary Godat Bellamy (b. 1861, d. 1954) was the first woman elected to the Wyoming State Legislature.
A resident of Laramie, she was one of the five state representatives elected at-large from Albany County. She gained the second-highest vote total, trailing leader Leslie A. Miller (also a Democrat and, later, Wyoming governor) by just one vote (1,284 to Miller’s 1,285).
A schoolteacher by profession, she was married to Charles Bellamy, the first licensed professional engineer in America. Charles Bellamy, also a surveyor, supervised numerous surveys in the northern Rockies during his long career, including one survey in 1879 during which he named one of the most beautiful lakes in the Snowy Range, Lake Marie, in honor of his wife.
One of the founding members of the Wyoming Federation of Women’s Clubs, Mary Bellamy won the Democratic nomination for the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1910, going on to win the general election later than year. She did not seek reelection to the office.
In 1918, she was a delegate to the National Suffrage Convention. She never again sought elective office although she was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1920.
Throughout her life, she remained active in Laramie and state civic organizations. In recognition of that service, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Wyoming in 1952.
She died in 1954 and was buried in Greenhill Cemetery, Laramie.
Bellamy sat for a series of interviews in the 1950s. The digitized recordings may be heard through links on the website of the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
1st Wyoming native to be elected governor: Robert Carey, b. Cheyenne, 1878, elected governor in 1918.
1st University of Wyoming graduate to be elected governor: Milward Simpson, Republican, elected governor in 1954.
1st Wyoming governor to serve more than two terms: Ed Herschler, Democrat, elected to a third term in 1982.
1st former governor to become U. S. Senator: Francis E. Warren. Just 17 days after he became the state's first governor in 1890, Warren resigned to accept the legislature's election of him to the U. S. Senate. It started a tradition. John Kendrick, Lester Hunt, and Frank Barrett each resigned from the governorship after election to the U. S. Senate. J. J. Hickey resigned to accept appointment to the Senate. Other governors later elected to the Senate were: Robert Carey, Milward Simpson, and Clifford P. Hansen.