Wyoming Territory held an election on September 6, 1870; those who participated made world history. It was the first time ever in which women could vote in a general election.
The first woman who voted that morning was Laramie resident Louisa Swain, a seventy-year-old woman who was born in Virginia. Her participation is well known and has been recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives that declared September 6 as Louisa Swain Day.
But what about the rest of the voters that day? Who were they, how did they vote and what were the results? Unfortunately, the official Albany County records have been lost, but local newspaper articles tell some interesting stories.
Cheyenne briefly tried to claim that the wife of U.S. Marshal Church Howe was the first female voter. After being challenged by the Laramie paper, Cheyenne conceded that Mrs. Swain had actually voted 30 minutes earlier.
The legislative assembly that gave women the right to vote in 1869 was made up entirely of Democrats. Of the 93 Laramie women who voted on that September day, 64 cast their ballots for Republicans. No exit polling was necessary; there were no secret ballots required until 1890 so everyone knew who voted for whom.
Census figures from June of 1870 revealed that Laramie was overwhelmingly male. There were 828 citizens residing in Laramie: 604 were males and 204 were females. Of the females, 121 were eligible to vote, meaning that 75 percent actually went to the polls, a very respectable turnout.
The heavy Republican vote by the ladies of Laramie was reflected in territory wide elections. Many Republicans were elected to county offices and the territory’s new delegate to congress was a Republican, displacing his Democratic forerunner.
This apparently did not please the Democratic Party as one of their leaders, C. E. Castle of Uinta County, led an effort in the legislative assembly of 1871 to repeal the suffrage law. He was joined by other Democrats and some Republicans, and together they almost succeeded in taking the right to vote away from Wyoming women.
The assembly passed the repeal but Republican Governor Campbell vetoed the attempt and women’s right to vote was sustained. The assembly then mounted an effort to override the veto but fell one vote short. Laramie representatives Melville C. Brown and Ora Haley were instrumental in keeping suffrage from being taken from Wyoming women. They sided with the governor.
Reports also indicated that voters were given either a Republican or a Democratic Party ballot. Voters voted straight tickets. One woman in Cheyenne wrote that she was unhappy with the name at the top of her ballot, so she tore off the top of the ballot in order to avoid voting for him.
Despite the large majority of women voting for Republicans, Albany County officials elected in September 1870 were almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats held all three county commissioner positions, the probate judge, coroner, two of four justices of the peace and the two constables.
The Republicans on the other hand received the majority of votes for Wyoming’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives (non-voting), county clerk, sheriff, assessor, surveyor, superintendent of schools, and two of four justices. Of those elected from both parties, three Republicans are the most widely remembered in local history: Sheriff Nathaniel K. Boswell, Surveyor Stephen W. Downey and Superintendent Melville C. Brown.
Both the Laramie and Cheyenne papers reported that the presence of women voters at the polls greatly improved the behavior of the men who went to vote. They indicated that drunkenness and rowdiness were completely absent and that women were treated with the utmost courtesy.
Voting requirements were very liberal. There were no voter registration rolls. Lawmakers felt the population was so transient that registration would curtail the right to vote. Anyone over the age of 21 who was a U.S. citizen or declared that they intended to become a citizen could vote.
This resulted in a very high turnout with an almost unbelievable 97 percent among Laramie men. Today that percentage would undoubtedly raise eyebrows and lead to a political party challenge to the vote, but apparently it was never questioned.
Voting went smoothly in Albany County except for the town of Rock Creek. Thirty-seven of the fifty-one votes cast were thrown out due to “irregularities” which were not detailed in the newspapers.
The large turnout on September 6 and the relative lack of problems revealed that Laramie citizens’ participation was sincere and showed their commitment to the democratic process. Especially noteworthy was the women’s vote which was widely praised by local newspapers. Their engagement was so successful that it became a permanent fixture of Wyoming’s political scene and was enshrined in Article VI of the 1889 Wyoming Constitution.
By Kim Viner
Caption: This editorial from the Laramie Sentinel newspaper of September 7, 1870 clearly shows that there was general awareness of the significance of this vote. Editor J. H. Hayford of the Sentinel went on describe it as “that first little slip of paper … from the hand of a woman into the ballot-box” which might prove to be a “potent talisman against oppression and wrong.”