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.

New Project Reveal: Biography of Suffragist Virginia Minor

Virginia Minor

I’ve been kind of cagey about the biography I’m working on (not Rose Ferron, which is on the back burner at the moment, this is another one), but I’m getting close to finishing my research and submitting to agents, so I’m now comfortable with talking about it. I am working on a dual biography of husband-wife suffragist team, Virginia and Francis Minor. I happen to have a guest post today about Virginia over on author Suzanne Adair’s website, if you want to see a summary of her life.

I first heard about Virginia when I was researching Victoria Woodhull for my book Madame Presidentess. Virginia was a contemporary of Victoria’s. While we can’t prove that they knew one another, it is likely. Virginia was a big deal in the National Woman’s Suffrage Association and she is the one who originated the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote, and idea Victoria used when she spoke before Congress. Even if Victoria didn’t personally know Virginia, she almost certainly had heard of her.

You know me and stories of forgotten women. There was something about Virginia that I was immediately attracted to. I haven’t yet been able to put my finger on what. But I knew I had to tell her story. This one didn’t strike me as right for historical fiction, though. I did some digging and found that no one has ever written a biography of her. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!

The book started out just being about Virginia, but then I realized that her relationship with Francis was integral to her work and highly unusual. They lived a life of purposeful equality, beginning in the 1840s, way before that was common practice, so I knew I had to include him as well. They also both lived in my hometown of St. Louis for over 40 years, which is really helping with the research. We have some great archives here with very valuable information. Neither Francis or Virginia is well-known, and so not much about them still exists, but it is possible to find it if you look hard enough. I love the thrill of the chase in research, so I am having a ball. This June I will be visiting archives in Virginia, where they were both born, so hopefully that will shed light on their childhoods, which is really the missing piece at the moment.

I can’t wait to tell you more about them as the project progresses and to hopefully soon have a contract on the book.

P.S. – So far, I have not been able to track down a photo of Francis, which is why there isn’t one in this post. I have, however, held documents written in his own hand. It was so cool!