Fearless Females: The First Black Woman to Receive a U.S. Patent

Did you know there is a bit of a debate over who was the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent? Judy Woodford Reed, Sarah E. Goode, and Miriam Benjamin are all credited with that feat, though there may have been others before them who did not reveal their race or gender. Learn more about each of these women below.

Judy Woodford Reed

The debate begins with Judy Woodford Reed (1826-1905). She was issued patent 305,474 for a “dough kneader and roller” on September 23, 1884. Her invention was for “improved design of rollers that helped the dough to mix more evenly while it was kept covered and protected.”

The patent is the only documentation that exists of her life. Historians have been able to piece together her birth and death dates, but little else is known about her—not even a photo remains. Judy was a former slave who likely could not read or write, as she signed the patent with an X instead of her name. Her attorney wrote her name on the patent for her, using her initials, J.W. Reed. And this is where the controversy comes in. Because Judy didn’t actually sign the patent with her name, some wonder if it was technically fully executed.

Sarah E. Goode

Those who follow the line of thought that Judy Woodford Reed’s patent wasn’t fully executed, credit Sarah E. Goode with being the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent. She was issued a patent (322,177) for the cabinet bed on July 14, 1885, which was a pre-cursor to the better-known Murphy Bed.

Sarah was born into slavery in 1855 in Toledo, Ohio, and was described as being of mixed White and Black ancestry. She was granted her freedom at age 10 when the Civil War ended.

Sara was the daughter of a carpenter who married a “stair builder.” Later in life, she sold furniture in Chicago. Her invention came about when she heard customers from New York mention that space was at a premium in the city thanks to new laws that limited the height of buildings. That meant most tenements were only around 25×100 feet in size. Sarah’s creativity resulted in a fold out bed that when retracted, looked and functioned like a roll-top desk complete with compartments for storing pens, ink and stationery.

Miriam Benjamin

Though only a few sources credit Miriam Benjamin (1861-1947) with being the first, she is widely held to be the second (or perhaps third) Black woman to be granted a patent. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, as a free Black woman. Miriam attended high school in Boston and eventually became a teacher in Washington D.C. before attending law school at Howard University and becoming a “solicitor of patents.”

Her first patent was for the gong and signal chair for hotels. As a frequent traveler, Miriam noticed that many hotels and restaurants seemed overstaffed for the number of customers needing service at any moment. This resulted in her devising a chair with a gong and signal attached meant to “reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages.” To summon a server or other attendant, a patron would press a button on the back of the chair, which would send a signal to the server as well as illuminate a light so the server could see which guest needed help.

Later on, Miriam’s system was adopted by the United States House of Representatives to summon pages and was the precursor to flight attendant call buttons in airplanes.

Miriam went on to patent other inventions and is believed to be one in the same with composer E.B. Miriam who wrote marches, including “The Boston Elite Two Step” and “The American Bugle Call,” which was adopted as the campaign song for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign.

Fearless Females: Sally Ride

With the release of Consequences and the Historical Novel Society Conference, June almost got away from me without our monthly column on women in history. But luckily I was working on next month’s and realized it.

This month we’re looking at a woman whom I remember from my childhood. (Can you believe 35 years ago is the definition of historical in the publishing industry? I feel so old!) 

Did you know that the United States Mint is honoring 20 women on U.S. quarters over the next few years? One of the first two is Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who earned this designation on June 18, 1983, (the other is poet Mya Angelou).

Sally Kristen Ride was born May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles. As a young woman, she was interested in science, but put that on the back-burner to focus on her tennis career. Despite being a nationally-ranked player, Sally eventually returned to science, studying physics and English at Stanford, where she earned her bachelors in 1973, masters in 1975 and her doctorate in 1978. She specialized in astrophysics and free electron lasers.

After she graduated, Sally was one of only 35 people (and six women) selected out of 8,000 applications to participate in NASA Astronaut Group 8, the first NASA selection in more than a decade. It was the first group to include women and people of color.

She trained for a year and then became a ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for NASA’s second and third space shuttle flights and helped develop the Space Shuttle’s “Canadarm” robot arm.

On June 18, 1983, at 32, she became the youngest woman ever in space and only the third ever (behind USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982). She is also the first known LGBTQIA+ astronaut. Before her first flight, the media expressed reservations about women in space, asking her questions about her emotional capability to withstand the journey and if she worried about how space would affect her ability to have children. Sally ignored them all and said she didn’t think of herself as a female astronaut, but simply as an astronaut.

On her first flight, Sally’s job was to work the robotic arm that helped place satellites in space for Canada and Indonesia. This was the first successful deployment and retrieval in space. On her second space flight in October 1984, she used the shuttle’s robotic arm to remove ice from the shuttle’s exterior and to readjust a radar antenna. Sally was assigned to a third shuttle mission, but her crew’s training was cut short by the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

Sally left NASA in 1987. She worked for two years at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, then at the University of California, San Diego, researching nonlinear optics and Thomson scattering.

During this time, she started looking for ways to help women and girls who wanted to study science and mathematics. She came up with the idea for NASA’s EarthKAM project, which lets middle school students take pictures of Earth using a camera on the International Space Station. Students then study the pictures. She also wrote or co-wrote seven books on space for children to encourage them to study science.

Sally served on the committees that investigated the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters, the only person to participate in both. Sally provided key information about how O-rings get stiff at low temperatures, which led to them being identified as the cause of the Challenger explosion.

In 2003, Sally was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Sally died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. She was honored with many awards after her death, including being featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

Feb. 3 – National Female Physician’s Day and the story of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

This is my monthly column for the Women in Leadership Newsletter for my day job.

Did you know that Feb. 3 is National Women Physicians Day? That’s because it is also the birthday (1821) of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school and become a doctor in the United States.

Elizabeth was born in Bristol, England, into a Quaker family known for being reformers. Her parents were anti-slavery activists, her sister Antoinette would become the first ordained female Protestant minister, and her brother Henry would go on to marry American suffragist Lucy Stone, founder of the American Woman’s Suffrage Association.

For financial reasons and because her father wanted to help abolish slavery in the United States, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832 when Elizabeth was only 11. Six years later, her father died, leaving the family destitute during a national financial crisis. To make ends meet, her mother, two older sisters and Elizabeth worked as teachers at The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, a school they founded.

One day, as one of Elizabeth’s female friends lay dying, the woman said she believed her suffering would have been less if she had had a female physician. At that moment, Elizabeth knew that was what she was meant to do, despite having a natural aversion to “everything connected with the body…the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.” But there was one big problem: none of the medical schools in the U.S. would admit women. Her only option was to find a physician who would allow her to apprentice under him for informal training. She found not one, but two doctors in Philadelphia who were willing to help her. Elizabeth worked as a teacher while living with the physicians’ families.

While she was training, Elizabeth applied to all the major medical schools and was universally rejected; even when she applied to the small schools, she only received one acceptance letter, from Geneva Medical College in New York. What she didn’t know was that the faculty had opposed her admission but since she was qualified in all ways but gender, they felt they couldn’t reject her outright. So, they referred the decision to the students, who thought the whole thing was a practical joke, and voted unanimously
to admit her.

Elizabeth arrived in Geneva on Nov. 6, 1847, well after the beginning of the term. Not only did she have to catch up on her classwork, but she faced very strong discrimination. Her professors forced her to sit separately from the male students during lectures and often excluded her from labs, fearing that her delicate female sensibilities couldn’t handle subject matter like the male reproductive system. At the same time, the citizens of Geneva shunned her as an improper woman for defying her God-given roles of wife and mother. She wrote of this time:

“I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.”

After graduating on Jan. 23, 1849, with the highest grades in her class, Elizabeth—now Dr. Blackwell—continued her training in London and Paris, though the doctors in those hospitals only allowed her to work in midwifery and nursing. During that time, she realized that doctors often caused epidemics by failing to wash their hands between patients, so she emphasized preventive care and personal hygiene in her departments.

In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City, where she encountered even more discrimination against female physicians, who were thought to all be abortionists, though that procedure was illegal and most female physicians did not practice it. This attitude meant she had few patients and was not welcomed at many hospitals and clinics. Like so many women before her, she took matters into her own hands and opened her own small clinic to treat poor women. She is quoted as saying, “If society will not admit of a woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.”

By 1857, her sister, Emily, had followed in her footsteps to become a doctor, earning her medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Together, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. This medical establishment welcomed aspiring female physicians and nurses and gave them what men sought to deny them: training in practical medical skills.

During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained nurses for Union hospitals and Elizabeth founded the Woman’s Central Relief Association because the male physicians in the United States Sanitary Commission refused to help her.

After the war, in 1867 or 1868 (sources conflict on the date), Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college for women in New York City. A year later, she placed Emily in charge and moved permanently to London, where one of her first acts was to found the National Health Society.

Despite failing health, Dr. Blackwell established the London School of Medicine for Women with Sophia Jex-Blake, one of her students in New York, in 1874. The following year, Dr. Blackwell became a professor of gynecology at the school, a position she held for three years before retiring from medicine.

Dr. Blackwell never married, choosing instead to spend her retirement time advocating for social and moral reform. She also published more than 15 books, including Medicine as a Profession For Women in 1860, Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864 and an 1895 autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. She died in 1910 at the age of 89.

Today, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is recognized for her influence on the medical profession in the United States and the United Kingdom. Biographer Janice Nimura has just released a new book on Elizabeth and her sister Emily titled The Doctors Blackwell. Check it out or read this interview with the author on NPR to learn more about these pioneering women in medicine.

Fun fact: The first female physician in western history that we know of is Metrodora, a Greek doctor who lived sometime between 200-400 AD/CE. She wrote the oldest known medical book by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women.

Black History Month: Black Female Health Care Heroes

For those who are not aware, my day job is in health care. This is an article I was asked to write by our Women in Leadership program.

February is Black History Month, so it is only appropriate that we reflect upon the tremendous—and often overlooked—contributions of Black women and men in health care, both within our company and in the United States in general. While doing so, we must also acknowledge and ask forgiveness for the inexcusable discrimination and injustice perpetrated upon our Black brothers and sisters, a pain that continues to this day. As we reflect, let us pray for understanding, unity and love, that our country may become a haven of tolerance for all and celebrate both our differences and our similarities as children of God, equally worthy of respect and dignity.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (First Black Female Doctor in the U.S.)
Rebecca was born in Delaware in 1831 and was raised by her aunt, who frequently cared for sick neighbors. This experience is what influenced her to become a healer herself. At the time there was no formal schooling for nurses, so Rebecca’s training was all on the job. She worked as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts, from 1852-1860, when she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston. In 1864, she became the first Black American female to earn a medical degree.

(You may see references to a woman named Rebecca Cole holding this distinction, one for which she was given credit for many years. Because she received her degree in 1867, she is now considered the second Black American woman to hold a medical degree.)

Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston until the Civil War ended and she moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she cared for “a population of over 30,000 colored” in her own estimation. Despite experiencing terrible racism, she worked with other black physicians and the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, housing, medical care, education and legal assistance to former slaves.

Sometime later she moved back to Boston. In 1883, she published Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical publications by a Black American.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (First Black Nurse Licensed in the U.S.)
Mary was born in 1845 in Boston to freed slaves who had moved there from North Carolina. She received a superb education at Phillips School in Boston, which later became one of the first integrated schools in the country. By the time she was a teenager, she felt a calling to become a nurse. She found employment at New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was run completely by women and provided care only to women and children. She worked there for the next 15 years in roles as varied as janitor, cook, washer woman and nurse’s aide.

In 1878, Mary was accepted into a 16-month nursing training program at the hospital. During this program she worked 16-hour shifts attending lectures and lessons led by doctors in the hospital. She was also taught bedside procedures by experienced nurses. The students earned a weekly wage ranging from $1-$4. The course work was so rigorous that out of a class of 42 students, only four graduated, including Mary, in 1879.

After receiving her diploma, Mary found that Black public nurses faced harsh discrimination, and so went into private care nursing in the homes of rich White families on the East coast. She was often treated like a servant instead of a professional and thus worked to distance herself from the household staff. She became renowned for her professionalism, efficiency, patience and bedside manner, a reputation that spread across the United States.

Mary wanted more than anything to improve the reputation of Black nurses across the country. In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). This group was overwhelmingly White and not very friendly toward Black nurses, so Mary cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908.

After her death in 1926, Mary was recognized with numerous honors. In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses founded the Mary Mahoney Award, which is still given today to nurses who promote integration in nursing. Mary was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1993.

Opaline Wadkins (Nurse and Integration Pioneer)
Opaline Wadkins’ career began in 1938 when she was hired by the Texas Department of Public Health to recruit Black nurses. Two years later she moved to Oklahoma City where she lobbied for the rights of Black patients. It took five years, but in 1945 Opaline finally convinced the city to found its first hospital to treat Black patients, University Hospital South Ward, and establish a school to train Black nurses. Between 1949 and 1953 she trained over 200 Black LPNs.

In 1954, Opaline became the first Black nursing supervisor at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. While working for there, she was also studying for her master’s degree in public health. She was especially concerned about the lack of access young Black people had to information about their health. When she graduated, Opaline became the first Black person to earn a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Oklahoma.

With her passion for public health, she started new initiatives to provide care to minorities living in Oklahoma. One of her most successful programs was a health and well-baby care initiative for Native Americans which effectively decreased infant mortality by 50%. She also worked with local churches to provide health and diabetic clinics to Black patients living in Oklahoma City and was instrumental in desegregating the University of Oklahoma College of Nursing.

Opaline retired in 1976. The governor of Oklahoma declared Nov. 14 as Opaline Wadkins Day. She was later honored by the VA Hospital Nursing Service and the Oklahoma Public Health Association. In 1993, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. She died in 2000 at her home in Oklahoma City.

Other Notable Black People in Medical History:

  • In 1721, a slaved named Onesimus described the African method of inoculation against smallpox to Cotton Mather. The technique was used to protect soldiers during the Revolutionary War and was perfected in the 1790s by British doctor Edward Jenner. (To learn more about this, check out The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell.)
  • Born into slavery, Dr. James Durham bought his freedom in 1762. He then started his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first Black doctor in the United States.
  • In 1837, James McCune Smith became the first Black American to receive a medical degree (from the Glasgow Medical School in Scotland) and opened the first pharmacy in the US owned and operated by a person of color.
  • In 1847, David Jones Peck became the first Black person to graduate from a medical school in the United States, Rush Medical College, in Chicago, Illinois.
  • In 1862, former slave Susie Baker (later known as Susie King Taylor) became the first Black U.S. Army nurse during the Civil War.
  • In 1891, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founded the first black-owned hospital in America, Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Two years later he performed the first successful open-heart surgery. In 1897 he founded the National Medical Association because Black people were denied membership in the American Medical Association. He was also a charter member of the
    American College of Surgeons in 1913 and was the first and only Black member for many years.
  • In 1912, Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as the country’s first Black psychiatrist, published the first comprehensive clinical review of all Alzheimer’s cases reported to date. He was also the first to translate into English much of Alois Alzheimer’s work on the disease that bears his name.
  • In 1921 – Dr. Meta L. Christy became the world’s first Black osteopathic physician after graduating from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
  • In 1936, Dr. William Augustus Hinton was the first Black American physician to publish a textbook, Syphilis and Its Treatment.
  • In 1950, Dr. Helen O. Dickens became the first Black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons.
  • In 1978, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall was elected the first Black president of the American Cancer Society.
  • In 1981, Alexa Canady became the first Black female neurosurgeon in the U.S.
    and Dr. Mae C. Jemison became the first Black female astronaut in NASA history. In 1992 she became the first Black woman in space, where she researched various vaccines and conducted experiments onboard the shuttle Endeavour.
  • In 1991, Dr. Vivian Pinn became the first woman and the first Black person to hold the title of Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, National Institutes of Health.
  • In 1993, Dr. Edward S. Cooper became the first Black person elected as National President of the American Heart Association and Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first Black person to be appointed as U.S. Surgeon General.
  • In 1995, Dr. Lonnie Bristow became the first Black President of the American Medical Association (AMA) in its 148-year history.
  • In 2002, Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps became the first Black woman to serve as President of the American Medical Women’s Association.
  • In 2018, Dr. Patrice Harris became the first Black woman President-Elect of the country’s largest physician organization, the AMA.

Fearless Females: American Women’s Firsts in Politics

I just realized I never posted my January Fearless Females column on women in U.S. History. (If you missed the first one, check it out here.) Perfect timing, though, since today is inauguration day.

The first month of each year is chock full of important dates in women’s history because so many lawmakers take office when the new term of the government begins in January. From our first Lantina elected to the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) on Jan. 2, 2017, to Dr. Condoleezza Rice (R) becoming the first Black woman appointed Secretary of State on Jan. 26, 2005, we could extoll a different woman almost every day of the month. If you’re curious as to why the dates are scattered throughout the month, check out this site. It explains when legislators assume responsibility, which varies from state to state.

And this year, we have an extra special first, with Kamala Harris (D-CA) becoming the first female vice president in the history of the U.S. on Jan. 20. She is also the first South Asian and first Black woman elected to that seat. She previously made history on Jan 3, 2017, as the first South Asian and second Black woman elected to the US Senate. In 2016 she became the first woman of color to be selected as the running mate on a major-party ticket, as well as the first multiracial woman, the first South Asian woman, and the first Black woman.

Did you know that the presidential inauguration wasn’t always held in January? The 20th Amendment moved it from March 4 (which had been the designated date since 1789, even though travel delays meant George Washington didn’t actually take office until April 9) to Jan. 20. The four-month gap created by the March date was important historically because it took a lot of time to count and report votes when they had to be gathered from across the nation by hand, on horseback and later by a much slower mail system than we have now. Plus, it gave the incoming president time to choose his cabinet and set up the rest of his administration. However, it also meant that the sitting president, if he wasn’t reelected, often left things to his successor, who had no power to act, a condition often referred to as a “lame duck” presidency. As technology sped up the vote counting process, this period became increasingly problematic, so Congress passed the 20th Amendment, which was ratified on Jan. 23, 1933, and moved Inauguration Day to Jan. 20 and the first meeting of the new Congress to Jan. 3.

Here’s a list of other political female “firsts” in January:

Jan. 2, 2017 – Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) became the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 3, 2013 – Mazie Hirono (D-HI) became the first Asian-Pacific Islander woman — and only the second woman of color — elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 3, 2019 – Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) became the first Muslim women sworn into Congress.

Jan. 4, 2007: U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA.) becomes the first female speaker of the House. In 2019, she reclaims the title, becoming the first lawmaker to hold the office two times in more than 50 years.

Jan. 4, 2007 – Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress.

Jan. 12, 1932 – Hattie Wyatt Caraway (D-AR) becomes the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 15, 1981 – Jeane Kirkpatrick (D) becomes the first female U.N. Ambassador

Jan. 23, 1977 – Patricia Roberts Harris (D) was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She was the first Black woman to serve in a presidential cabinet and the first woman to hold two different cabinet positions (the second was Secretary of Health and Human Services).

Jan. 23, 1997: Madeleine Albright (D) is sworn in as the nation’s first female secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

Jan. 26, 2005 – Dr. Condoleezza Rice (R) becomes the first Black woman appointed Secretary of State.

We thank all of these trailblazing women who were ahead of their time and dared to do what others deemed “impossible.” Because of them, there is only one glass ceiling left in the United States government—one that someone will someday break, proving to women across the nation that there is nothing they can’t do.

Fearless Females: A Column About American Women’s Contributions to History

I know it’s been a few months since I’ve blogged. Just been busy writing (the biography of Virginia and Francis Minor is done and is on submission with publishers!) and working.

Speaking of work, we have a group that is specifically for women leaders and is all about promoting women’s accomplishments and helping one another and the community. I’m not a member because you have to have a certain level title and I’m not that high up. Anyway, they found out about my interest and research into women’s history and asked me to write a monthly column for their newsletter, along with compiling a list of “This Day in History” anniversaries of major U.S. female accomplishments. So I thought I would share that information here as well.

I’m going to share them as I finish them. This one is technically Dec. 2020.

The Making of a Movement: Wyoming Women Get the Vote

Wyoming Women Voting. Source: WikiMedia Commons

December is a month full of not only holidays but also important anniversaries in women’s history. Household names such as Rosa Parks, Carol Moseley Braun and Jane Addams made history this month. We’ll talk about them in the future, but since this year marked the centennial of women winning the right to vote in the U.S., I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the history-changing event that started the 51-year battle for women of all states to be able to legally vote. No, not the Seneca Falls Convention—though that is widely considered the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement. I’m talking about Wyoming becoming the first territory to grant women the right to vote on Dec. 10, 1869.

Wyoming wasn’t even a state yet when it took the bold step of enfranchising women. While this may sound like a noble move to us in hindsight, it was far from it at the time. The area had fallen on hard times, with the workers who had braved the wild to build the railroad and pan for gold just a few years earlier having moved on to more lucrative areas. Lawmakers were desperate to bring their territory some good publicity so that more people would move to the area, especially women. There were six adult men in the Territory for every adult woman, and there were very few children—a population makeup that could not sustain itself for long.

The Democrats figured that if they gave women the right to vote, the women would thank them by voting for them, rather than the Republicans who opposed women’s suffrage. In addition, the attorney general had recently ruled that no one in the territory could be denied the vote on the basis of race, so former slaves and Chinese men were now allowed to vote; the men of the territory reasoned that women may as well be included, too.

The bill to give women over the age of 21 the right to vote in all elections held in Wyoming territory was introduced by legislator William H. Bright, a saloon keeper with no formal education, in 1869, possibly at the urging of his wife, Julia. Tradition says the bill was heavily debated, but no record of the proceedings exist. The bill passed 6-2 in the upper house and 7-4 in the lower house. Much to the Democrat’s surprise, Republican Governor John Campbell signed it into law on Dec. 10, 1869.* Women voted for the first time in September 1870.**

The 1871 legislature tried to repeal the law but failed. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, it also became the first state to allow women to vote.

*Legend has it that Democrats wanted to use the bill to embarrass the Republican governor, whom they expected to veto the bill. Suffrage leader Esther Morris later told The Woman’s Journal on March 9, 1872, that the passage of the law “was the result of a bitter feud between the existing political parties, and it was done in a moment of spite – not out of any regard for the movement.” Interestingly, Wyoming was the first, and possibly the only, state to enfranchise women without the influence of suffragists.

** This was not the first time women legally voted in the United States. Women had the right to vote in New Jersey from 1776-1807, when the state government wrote female voting out of the state constitution. It would be another one hundred and thirteen years before women in New Jersey would vote again. On February 9, 1920, New Jersey became the 29th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

Important Dates in U.S. Women’s History – December

Dec. 1, 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala, helping to launch the civil rights movement.

Dec. 9, 1999 – Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) became the first Black woman and the first woman of color to be elected to the U.S. Senate. She had also been the first Black woman to win a major party Senate nomination.

Dec. 10, 1869 – Wyoming becomes the first territory to grant women the right to vote. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, they also became the first state to allow women to vote.

Dec. 10, 1870 – Ellen Swallow Richards becomes the first woman admitted to MIT (which made her the first accepted to any school of science or technology), and the first American woman to earn a degree in Chemistry.

December 10, 1931 – Jane Addams became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a social worker and activist.

Dec. 13, 1923 – The Equal Rights Amendment, written by suffragist Alice Paul, is first introduced into Congress. It has still not passed into law.

Dec. 15, 1985 – Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Dec. 16, 1891 – City Health Dept. Inspector Marie Owens is appointed to the Chicago Police Department as a police officer assigned to the Detective Bureau, becoming the nation’s first female law enforcement officer.