Albany County, Wyoming

A Historic Vote

Celebrating Louisa Swain’s significant impact on Wyoming’s past

By Katie Jackson

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There’s more to Wyoming than the Wild West, and while men were breaking laws, women were making history.

Most people who make history have quotes that can be attributed to them. But that’s not the case for Louisa Swain, the first woman in the world to vote in a democratic election. We don’t even know whom she voted for. Fortunately, the fact that she voted, not who won, is what matters most. Swain is just one of the remarkable women who helped Wyoming earn its nickname, the Equality State.

A progressive past

Tuesday, September 6, 1870, started out just like any other day. The sun rose over Pilot Hill, casting its morning rays over the frontier town of Laramie. Seventy-year-old Louisa Swain made her way downtown—a route she knew by heart even though she was a recent East Coast transplant. It was Election Day, and unbeknownst to Swain, her name would eventually be more well-known than any of the names on the ballot.

On September 7, the Laramie Daily Sentinel ran an article about the election on page two. It was published next to classifieds advertising all that was masculine at the time: miners’ tools, Winchester rifles, tobacco and beaver traps. In the late 19th century, men ran the show, especially in the Wild West. Still, in December 1869, the Wyoming Territory passed a groundbreaking law giving women the right to vote. Ten months later, the first vote cast by a woman was being celebrated in print.

“Yesterday, for the first time in the world, Wyoming put into practice the theory of female suffrage,” wrote the reporter. Besides Swain, there were 92 other women whose opinions were officially counted at the polls for the first time.

The reporter compared the scene to “another incident in our country’s history”—the firing of the first gun at Fort Sumter, which started the Civil War. “That gun, as its reverberations rolled o’er hill and dale, sounded the death knell of human bondage in the land of the free. And that first little slip of paper which ever fell from a woman into the ballot box—that all-potent talisman against oppression and wrong.”

The next day, another article ran in the Daily Sentinel. “There is not a person in our Territory who does not know we owe it to the Ladies of this Territory… As Wyoming has undertaken to try the experiment and test the practicability of the theory, the world looks anxiously for the result and is entitled to know it.”

What started as a whisper in Wyoming—“Should women be allowed to vote?”—would eventually be written into national law.

A history filled with firsts

In 1920, Congress—taking a 50-year-old cue from Wyoming—ratified the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote nationwide. In 2008, both houses of Congress unanimously passed a resolution designating September 6 as Louisa Swain Day. Indeed, great strides for women were made in the 138 years between when Swain dropped her ballot in the box and the day she was immortalized with the bronze statue that stands sentry outside Laramie’s Wyoming House for Historic Women. In fact, all 13 women honored in this red brick building in downtown Laramie made, and are still making, headlines.

“Overlooked no more: She followed a trail to Wyoming. Then she blazed one,” reads the title of the obituary for Esther Morris that the New York Times published in May 2018.  At the age of 55, the South Pass City resident became the world’s first female judge when she was sworn in as Justice of the Peace in February 1870. Just a month later, Eliza Stewart, a Laramie teacher, became the first woman to serve on a jury. That game-changing move precipitated another: appointing a woman who could guard Stewart’s hotel room during the trail. Thus, Martha Symons Boies became the first female bailiff in the country. These firsts for females weren’t only occurring in the courtroom. In 1925, Wyoming inaugurated the nation’s first female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross, who would later go on to become the first female director of the U.S. Mint.

A promising future

Wyoming continues to be a place where women are not only active in realms previously reserved for men; they’re pro-active. Laramie in particular lives up to the Equality State moniker. Only in this welcoming college town can one walk the halls of Wyoming’s House for Historic Women in the morning and meet at the Hike Like a Woman headquarters to explore the Medicine Bow National Forest in the afternoon. Founded in 2015 by Rebecca Walsh—an Army veteran, published author and accomplished athlete—Hike Like a Woman is a program bridging the gap between women and Wyoming’s wilder side. But like her predecessors, Walsh’s role within Wyoming has had a ripple effect spilling over state lines. Today, there are Hike Like a Woman chapters as far away as Florida and Alaska.

Walsh is just one woman in another generation of Wyoming female movers and shakers. This lineage of legacy may not have started with Louisa Swain, but her vote on September 6, 1870, is as cemented into our nation’s history as her statue is rooted in downtown Laramie. In fact, Laramie will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of that pivotal moment for an entire year starting in September 2019. In terms of attending special events paying homage to Wyoming’s storied past, there’s never been a better time to explore the Equality State.

Remembering yesterday, today

There aren’t any eloquent quotes that can be attributed to Louisa Swain, and she’s probably not politically famous enough to have her profile minted on an American coin. What she does deserve, however, is to be credited with at least two words. Yes, maybe one day her face will grace the “I Voted” stickers we so proudly wear every Election Day.

Come celebrate Louisa Swain’s historic vote in Laramie.