By Megan Nelson, Museum Docent
This past Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. The 19th amendment won women the right to vote. This is an important anniversary, as voting is an essential right for citizens in this country. But, perhaps the most interesting fact about women’s suffrage is the way certain states granted the right before the federal government. Most of the states that granted universal suffrage were states in the Western part of the US. These Western states provided encouragement to the suffrage movement by demonstrating to the East that universal suffrage was within grasp.
In 1896, Idaho became the fourth state in the union to grant women the right to vote! 1896 was 24 years before the national ratification. The other three states that went before Idaho were Wyoming in 1890, Colorado in 1893, and Utah in 1896. And those were just the states. There were several US territories that gave women the right to vote. In 1869, Wyoming was the first territory to have female suffrage. The bill was introduced into the first legislative session of the territorial government. The territories of Utah (1870), Washington (1883), Montana (1887), and Alaska (1913) followed. Interestingly enough, Idaho did not grant the right until after statehood. In 1870, when Idaho was a territory, there was a universal suffrage bill introduced into the territorial legislature. But the bill resulted in a tie and it failed. There were attempts again in 1885 and 1887, but the real change with an amendment to the state constitution in 1896.
When one examines the early universal suffrage states, the most striking quality is that they were mostly Western states. Before the 19th amendment, there were only two Eastern states, New York and Michigan, with universal suffrage. Why is this? It is difficult to give an answer with certainty, but there were several factors that contributed to this phenomenon. In certain states, it was racially motivated. Many of the Western states had a Democratic majority and wanted to strike at the historically abolitionist Republican party. The Democrat who introduced the bill was outspokenly racist and could not stand the enfranchisement of black men. But, he thought giving white women the right to vote would override the black vote. And, of course, the Democrats hoped the female suffrage act would draw more voters to their side and upset the Republicans voter base. Additionally, Wyoming wanted to draw more women to their territory and correct the large gender disparity in the state. As for Utah, the major factor was the support of LDS women. In the church, women exercised the right to vote, so they believed they had as much of a right to vote within a secular government. In Idaho, there were factors such as the strength of the Populist political party, the recently re-franchised LDS demographic in the south, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU was one of the earliest female activist groups. The group originally sought to ban alcohol and unseemly activities, but they eventually became a champion for female suffrage. Many Idaho women were active in the WCTU and they were further supported by the growing population of farmers who were also in support of temperance. All of these factors led to Idaho becoming the fourth state to grant women their right to vote. Suffragettes out East would continually point to the Western states and extoll the decisions made by the territorial and state legislatures. Susan B. Anthony even called Wyoming the only place that could be named “the Land of the Free”
The various factors contributing to universal suffrage range from horrible, such as overtly racist sentiments, to the progressive idea of equality amongst the sexes. While the reasons are diverse, it does not change the fact that Idaho and its neighbors led the rest of the country towards nation-changing legislation. Perhaps there will be another moment in history where Idaho is a beacon of progress for the rest of the country.
Museum, Idaho State. “Smithsonian Learning Lab Collection: Women’s Suffrage in Idaho.” Smithsonian Learning Lab. May 21, 2018. Accessed August 21, 2020.
Branham, Colin. “The Saints Were Sinners: The Mormon Question and the Survival of Idaho” Boise State University. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.boisestate.edu/presidents-writing-awards/the-saints-were-sinnersthe-mormon-question-and-the-survival-of-idaho/
Helton, Jennifer. “Woman Suffrage in the West” National Park Service. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/articles/woman-suffrage-in-the-west.htm#_ftn23
Rea, Tom. “Right Choice, Wrong Reasons: Wyoming Women Win the Right to Vote” Wyo History. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/right-choice-wrong-reasons-wyoming-women-win-right-vote
Rounsville, Sarah. “Women’s Suffrage and Temperance in Idaho” Intermountain Histories. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/250