The normal narrative of woman suffrage in the United States begins in Seneca Falls, New York, and steadily marches along through the lives and papers of the most noteworthy national suffragettes—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and a handful of other women until the hard-fought passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The six-volume History of Woman Suffrage tomes tells just such a story.
Yet the dominant narrative “overgeneralizes the experiences of the national, largely eastern leadership” and “generally neglect[s] the West, or fail[s] to evaluate its significance within the national movement.” Although the American Woman Suffrage Association was organized to promote legislation in the states in 1869, its leaders, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, did not travel west where suffrage was first won—indeed they had only minimal contact until 1871, after Wyoming adopted the franchise in December 1869 and to Utah in February 1870. Although there were certainly eastern rumblings whose aftershocks were felt on the frontier, the national narrative is notable here only for its lack.
Instead, when looking at relative influence, at least in the beginning, the West had a much greater impact on the East. In fact, it may be said that American Woman’s Suffrage began not in Seneca Falls, but in Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. Not only were these capitals the first loci of equal suffrage, but the nation learned from these “quieter” equality states what it meant for women to vote in ballot and jury boxes and serve in public office. In short, understanding how the vote was won in the West “helps explain the ultimate success of” the national movement.
If the national narrative and its eastern influence have been overplayed, what then explains why suffrage was first extended in the West? As Akhil Amar and others have convincingly demonstrated, suffrage was extended first in frontier situations globally and domestically where women were found in lower numbers, preempting any political threat they might otherwise pose.
That women were in rare supply should not come as a surprise: the adventure of frontier life drew in greater proportions of men. As a novelty item, woman’s currency skyrocketed. The sight of the young, “good looking” suffragist Miss Anna Dickinson in Cheyenne drew an unwanted crowd of male admirers, pressed up to the glass of her train car, imposing on her privacy. The average age of the territorial Wyoming legislator was thirty-two, with only half of them married. Extending the vote to women may have been interpreted as the western bachelors’ collective mating call— a ploy to woo the gentler sex to their states’ altars. The exception to this disparity is Utah, wherein the number of women was roughly equal to the number of men, due to the emphasis on settlement by families.
As Utah’s exceptionalism emphasizes, the lack of women and collective wooing there provide only the necessary condition in the suffrage calculus. Low numbers of women lessened resistance by removing the main obstacle of voting against men’s interest (assuming women would vote as a block against men), but it does not explain why any one man would be motivated to propose such a bill, especially a happily married man such as William T. Bright, sponsor of the suffrage bill in Wyoming. To correctly identify the sufficient variable, one must look to local history. In the first western extensions of the franchise, local histories show that politics, race, and religion motivated men to give women the vote. Such factors were the sufficient explanatory variables to the necessary condition of low proportions of women.
Moreover, the conditions of early western suffrage show that it was not only an important part of the larger suffrage story, but, crucially, of the Reconstruction story— albeit of a western, rather than southern flavor. As the leading western suffrage historian writes: “There is a tendency to dismiss the early enfranchisement of women in Wyoming (1869) and Utah (1870) as isolated western anomalies, but these events acquire greater significance when examined within the context of Reconstruction, territorial, and state politics.” The West at this time had much in common with the South: politically, both were inferior to the Northeast in terms of status, privilege, and power. The Northeast used that status, privilege, and power to reconstruct the social, civil, and political lives of the citizens in both regions. The implications and reasoning were different, but the tactics were roughly the same. The lives of one region were reordered via constitutional amendments, the other by mere statutes. Territories, like southern states, responded to this heavy-handedness in similar fashion, pushing back as far as they could. Especially in the case of Utah, the Northeast broke it like it did the South, first waging war upon it and then forcing it through legal sanctions to ultimately discontinue polygamy as the South had been forced to discontinue slavery.
The West’s response to its own Reconstruction provides a gloss on the Reconstruction Amendments themselves. While the Fifteenth Amendment was in the process of being ratified, it was already being implemented in federal territories. Wyoming Council President William T. Bright proposed woman suffrage in Wyoming because “[h]e sincerely believed that women should have the vote before Negroes, and Negroes had been given the vote.” Utah’s extension of suffrage was accomplished almost contemporaneous to ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Employing Amar’s powerful “enactment argument” modality of interpretation, these first grants of universal suffrage, read narrowly, can be understood as amendments to the Fifteenth Amendment. At a higher level of abstraction, this enactment history ties together the Nineteenth Amendment—seen as the ultimate consummation of the amendments proposed decades earlier in the West—to that of the Fifteenth Amendment and the Reconstruction Amendments generally. At an even greater level of abstraction, Western Reconstruction supplies a gloss on how “equality” and “liberty” as used in the Fourteenth Amendment were understood by some of its most progressive pioneers, tethering them firmly to women’s rights. All of this serves to bolster the arguments made by Akhil and Vikram Amar that the Nineteenth Amendment incorporates all political rights of the Fifteenth Amendment, and Steven Calabresi’s argument that the Nineteenth Amendment affected the equality guarantees of the Fourteenth.
This Article will focus on the granular Reconstruction histories of the first franchise extensions in the United States—Wyoming and Utah—in identifying some of the sufficient conditions that propelled men to introduce suffrage bills. In addressing these local histories, we see national personalities play only supporting roles in leading men and women in each state. Once we have narrowed the investigation to the appropriate cast of characters, their motivations—the sufficient variable in a larger analysis—will more clearly come into view. As will be seen, territorial politics, race, and religion provided sufficient motivation for men (against the backdrop of non-threatening proportions of women) to extend the franchise. These sufficient conditions provide richer context for understanding the Reconstruction Era and Amendments, their relationship to the Nineteenth Amendment, and the concepts of constitutional liberty and equality.