July 23, 2018

Ancestor of State Rep. Jim Allen cast the ‘nay’ that saved women’s suffrage

By Clair McFarland, Lander Journal staff writer.
This article was originally published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the Lander journal.

In 1869, the women of the Territory of Wyoming won the right to vote, granted by the first legislative session ever convened in the territory, 21 years before statehood.

Even though the “enfranchisement of woman” —as the legislative record put it — was brought forth in Wyoming’s infancy as if inseparable from Wyoming itself, the right was by no means safe. By 1871, there was an effort in the Wyoming House of Representatives and in the “Council,” a powerful sub-group that predated the Senate, to repeal the women’s suffrage law of 1869, and it was almost successful.

It took the vote of a man with deep Lander connections to stop it.

Ready to repeal

When the Council convened for the afternoon of Nov. 29, 1871, the bill to repeal “Woman Suffrage” was up for consideration. It already had been approved by the House.

The Governor of the Wyoming Territory, John Campbell, denounced the proposed repeal in a speech earlier that month, stating that women had “conducted themselves in every respect with as much tact, sound judgment and good sense, as men,” and that “the law should remain unrepealed.”

Despite those sentiments from the governor, as well as the bringing forth of a petition “singed by Mrs. E. S. Boyd and twenty-nine other women of Albany County, praying the Council and the House of Representatives not repeal the woman suffrage act,” the powerful council voted for the repeal anyway— in a 5 to 4 vote.

Override fight

But Gov. Campbell vetoed “H.B. No. 4,” the repeal designed to silence the voice of women in the shaping of Wyoming.

In the governor’s letter detailing his reasons for the veto, he feared that if a government could simply divest an entire group of its well-used voting rights, then “what is to prevent a future legislature from depriving certain men, or classes of men, whom from any consideration they desire to disenfranchise the same rights?”

The Territorial Legislature needed a two-thirds vote to override the veto. The House got it; the council needed the same, if it wanted to “take from women their franchises or privileges.”

Five out of the nine men voted “aye” —take away women’s suffrage.

Three of them —Downey, Gates, and Corlett — voted “nay.” On that 14th of December in 1871, the vote came down to the last man, Mr. John D. Fosher.

What most people may not know — and Mr. Fosher certainly didn’t at the time — is that John Fosher was the great-great-uncle of Jim Allen of Lander, who represents District 33 in the Wyoming House of Representatives. John Fosher represented the same district his great-great nephew now serves.

Fosher voted “nay” on the repeal, and — because 5 of 9 is not two-thirds — the Wyoming woman kept her voice.

History revived

“He was the last one to vote,” said Jim Allen, “and he voted to save women’s suffrage.”

If you fast forward nearly 150 years, you’ll see a Wyoming legislative session in the same building, drawing to a close.

“That was going to be the last time we met in the Capitol for a couple years while they renovated,” said Allen.

Because of the temporary but sentimental parting of the lawmakers from the historic building, “they challenged us to go to the microphone and say something interesting about the Capitol,” while representatives waited for bills to return from the Senate.

Jim Allen went outside.

“I walked across the street to the state museum, and I asked the archivist if she could look that up for me.”

The state archivist did not disappoint. The transcribed 1871 legislative session of territorial Wyoming traveled back across the street with Rep. Allen, “and I went to the microphone, and I read that.”

And, so, history was repeated into the legislative record.

Highway naming

When Jim Allen read the record of Dec. 1, 1871, the utterance was not intended only to lend buoyancy to the Capitol farewell, but also to the christening of The Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Pathway — a 19-mile stretch of Wyoming State Highway 28, beginning at mile marker 44 outside of South Pass City.

The stretch of Wyoming Highway 28 between Lander and South Pass City has been renamed in commemoration of the approaching 150-year anniversary of women’s suffrage in Wyoming, which was introduced by territorial legislator William Bright, of South Pass City, and voted into law on Dec. 10, 1869.

The celebratory dedication of the highway occurred May 22, 2018, and it was steeped in historical significance. The start at mile marker 44 acknowledges Wyoming’s entrance into the union as the 44th state, the 19-mile distance honors the U.S. Constitution adoption of women’s suffrage with the 19th Amendment, and Bright, the father of the 1869 Woman Suffrage bill in Wyoming, was from South Pass City.

In 1871, two years into what would become Wyoming’s famed legacy of equal representation for women, and within the dark moments of its near-demise by repeal, first territorial governor John Campbell said this:

“A regard for the genius of our institutions, for the fundamental principles of American autonomy, and for the immutable principles of right and justice, will not permit me to sanction this (repeal).”

The right of women to vote was not amended to the U.S. Constitution until 1902, when the 19th Amendment was ratified. In granting women political voice, and because of the vote by Jim Allen’s great-great uncle, Wyoming was 51 years ahead of the nation as a whole.

Posted in Notes From the Field