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Women break ground in the West

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, September 15, 1995

For the past month the nation has been commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, passed in 1920, granting women the right to vote. Since that time, the status and impact of women have soared in business, politics, community life and the professions.

Men and women sympathetic to women’s suffrage began agitating to end electoral discrimination against women as early as the administration of Andrew Jackson. In 1838, Kentucky authorized women to vote in school elections, and many other states followed suit. In 1848, more than 300 men and women convened in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where 68 women and 32 men signed the first formal demand for the United States to give women the right to vote. The first major setback to the suffrage movement came after the Civil War, when the 14th and 15th amendments merely extended the franchise to black men rather than providing universal suffrage for all Americans, as advocated by Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists.

The real breakthrough came in the West. In 1869, the Wyoming territory was the first to accord women suffrage on terms of equality with men — a practice the “Equality State” continued after its admission to the Union in 1890. Utah enacted women’s suffrage as a territory in 1873 and retained it with statehood in 1896. Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1896) were other 19th century pioneers for suffrage.

The next wave of states, propelled by the growing Progressive Movement, didn’t come aboard until 1910. Again, they were all in the west — including Washington, California, Oregon, Kansas, Arizona, Nevada and Montana. By 1916, 11 Western states had given women the right to vote, and the reform began to make headway in the West and Midwest.

My colleague, Colleen Murphy, who keeps track of these things, reminded me this week that the West has also led the nation in placing women in positions of public trust. Examples: Colorado elected the first three women state legislators in 1894: Clara Cressingham, Carrie C. Holly and Frances Klock, all Republicans. Utah followed in 1896, electing Martha Hughes Cannon, a Democrat.

Montana elected the first woman to the U.S. House of Representative in 1917: Jeanette Rankin, a Republican. Wyoming elected the nation’s first woman governor in 1925: Nellie Taylor Ross, a Democrat, who was elected to replace her deceased husband.

In 1887, Argonia, Kan., elected the first woman mayor. In 1978, Kansas sent Republican Nancy Kassebaum to the U.S. Senate, the first woman senator who had not been previously appointed or elected to fill a vacancy. And Arizona’s Sandra Day O’Connor is the first woman to set on the U.S. Supreme Court, appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, a Westerner.

The elections of 1992 and 1994 also marked other firsts for the West: California became the first state to send two women to the U.S. Senate: Barbara Boxer and Deianne Feinstein, both Democrats. Seven of 10 states with the highest percentages of women state legislators are in the West — led by Washington (40%), as well as Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Kansas and Idaho. Nationally, about 21% of 7,424 state legislators are women.

So 75 years of women’s suffrage should be a special occasion for Westerners, where New West historians remind us that women “won the West” as much as the cowboys, miners and gunslingers celebrated in Western Literature and lore.

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