Nearly 150 years ago, Buffalo Bill, founder of Cody, Wyo., said these words: “If a woman can do the same work that a man can do and do it just as well, she should have the same pay.” That same year, Wyoming granted women the right to vote and hold office, long before the 19th Amendment in 1920.
This frontier territory led the charge for women’s rights and it was the first in the country to not only grant women the right to vote, but also allow women to serve on a jury, have a suffragist elected to the legislature, and elect the country’s first female governor.
Nicknamed the “Equality State,” Wyoming has a long history of pioneering ladies. Some are well-known, like Annie Oakley, and others are unsung heroes, who fought for equal rights, championed for causes they believed in and made their mark in their own way. Here, learn about these women who blazed a path for others to proudly follow.
Louisa Gardner Swain
Louisa Gardner Swain sculpture at Wyoming House for Historic Women — Photo courtesy of Wyoming Tourism
On September 6, 1870 in Wyoming, Louisa Gardner Swain (1801-1880) became the first woman in the world to cast a ballot. Law granting women full equality to men went into effect in 1869 in Wyoming.
Today, visitors can see a life-size bronze statue in front of the Wyoming House for Historic Women, in historic downtown Laramie, Wyoming. The museum is created by the The Louisa Swain Foundation and features exhibits on 12 other Wyoming women who have impacted the world.
Esther Morris (1814-1902) was a prominent symbol of Wyoming’s women’s rights movement, where she led the fight for women’s suffrage that was granted in 1869. A year later, she took political office as first female justice of the peace in South Pass City. Her accomplishment was a direct result of the unconditional law that granted women the right to vote and hold public office.
Annie Oakley — Photo courtesy of Lavanya Sunkara
The iconic sharpshooter Annie Oakley (1860-1926) isn’t from Wyoming, but made her mark in the state with her incredible work in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for 16 seasons. The five-foot-tall woman won medals and accolades for her skill with many firearms.
She was an expert at shooting a cork out of a bottle or sniffing out a candle from 90 feet. Oakley also performed in front of Queen Victoria when Buffalo Bill’s show traveled to London for the Golden Jubilee in 1887.
As the first woman elected to the Wyoming Legislature in 1910, Mary Bellamy (1861-1954) made history. She further went on to become the state’s delegate at the National Suffrage Convention in D.C. in 1918. And she led the drive that eventually passed the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote in the rest of the country.
Agnes Chamberlin — Photo courtesy of Chamberlin Inn
Agnes Chamberlin (1871-1949) edited the newspaper that William Cody founded, The Cody Enterprise. She also helped establish the first radio station in town, Cody Women’s Club and the Chamber of Commerce.
She was the owner and proprietress of the Chamberlin Inn, where she hosted the first Chamber of Commerce meeting in the dining room and raised funds for charities. It is now a beautiful boutique hotel located in the heart of Cody.
Nellie Tayloe Ross
In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross (1876-1977) became the country’s first elected female governor, when she ran after the death of her husband, Wyoming governor William Bradford Ross. Ross went on to serve as the Vice Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the director of the DNC Women’s Division.
In 1933, she was appointed as the director of the U.S. Mint by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Estelle Ishigo’s works at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center — Photo courtesy of Lavanya Sunkara
During World War II, Americans of Japanese heritage were forced into internment camps, one of which was located near Cody. There, Estelle Ishigo (1899 – 1990), a Caucasian woman, chose to remain by the side of her Japanese-American husband.
As a talented artist, Ishigo documented the lives of the 14,000 camp residents with sketches, watercolor paintings and drawings to bring attention to the brutal conditions of camp life. Today, visitors can see her work at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Park County, Wyoming.
Frances Pound served as the first woman hired to enforce the law in Yellowstone as a “Rangerette.” When she applied for the position in 1926, Superintendent Horace Albright suggested she use her nickname, Jim. Her sister, Virginia Pound, followed in her footsteps in 1927.
Albright fought against the Park Service’s “boy’s club” atmosphere by hiring female employees even when there was animosity towards the idea.
Nancy-Carroll Draper — Photo courtesy of Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum
Also in Cody, Nancy-Carroll Draper (1922 – 2008) played a vital role in the establishment of the Draper Natural History Museum in the Smithsonian affiliated Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The museum highlights the zones found in the greater Yellowstone region and has specimens of the animals found in the region in settings that allow visitors to hear and smell the scents of these ecosystems.
Harriet Elizabeth Byrd
In 1980, former elementary school teacher from Cheyenne, Harriet Elizabeth Byrd (1926 – 2015), became the first African-American woman to serve in the Wyoming Legislature, where she served two terms in the House. She later ran for Senate in 1988 and won, becoming the first African-American to serve in both houses. She championed a bill that created Martin Luther King, Jr. Wyoming Equality Day, popularly recognized as King Day in the state.