Wyoming is big, beautiful and wild. The altitude makes your heart race and your mouth dry. The winter cold sinks deep into your bones. There are snake holes and herds of grumpy bison to navigate, and you can travel for miles without seeing a single human soul. It took a certain kind of person to settle these plains in the 1800s, and a particular community of tough, take-no-shit women to achieve so many firsts for their gender.
During an era when the suffrage movement was pushing for change across the country, it was the women of Wyoming (then a territory rather than an official part of the union) who first won the right to vote. Governor John A Campbell signed the bill into law in 1869, a full 50 years before the ratification of the 19th amendment, which protects the voting rights of all Americans regardless of their sex.
In towns across the territory, what followed was a landslide of firsts. In Laramie, in 1870, the first all-female jury was sworn in on March 7, and, a day shy of six months later, Louisa Ann Swain became the first woman to cast a vote. In the same year, South Pass City made Esther Hobart Morris the first female justice of the peace and Albany City gained the world’s first female bailiff, Martha Symons Boies Atkinson. In 1920, Jackson became the first American town to be entirely governed (by its mayor, marshal and council) by women. Later, Nellie Tayloe Ross served as Wyoming and the United State’s first female governor, from 1925 to 1927, and, between 1933 and 1953, as the first female director of the US Mint. She remains the state’s only female governor.
The reason Wyoming was so ahead of its time is more complex than a strongly held belief in the equality of the sexes. Men outnumbered women six to one when William Bright, a territorial legislator for the council, introduced the bill to give Wyoming’s women the right to vote. By offering liberties not available elsewhere, Bright and his fellow lawmakers hoped to entice more female settlers to the territory, which needed around 60,000 residents to become a state.
Between 1869 and 1890, when Wyoming finally joined the union, the population increased from approximately 20,000 to 60,000. Today, it is the least populous state in the country, with a little over 570,000 residents spread over almost 98,000 square miles. Interestingly, it seems Wyoming’s relative emptiness still provides fertile ground for women to flourish.
“For the most part, I think the fact that this is a small state is what allowed me to do what I wanted to do more easily,” says Marilyn Kite, who became Wyoming’s first female Supreme Court justice in 2000, and who was later appointed the state’s first female chief justice. “The fact that we are such a small population state, it really does give you access both in a business sense and a political sense, that you have a hard time finding in a highly populated area.”
While Wyoming is reported to have one of the worst gender wage gaps in the nation, with women making just 32 cents to every dollar their male counterparts earn, female-founded businesses are on the rise. According to data from the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, there are 19,100 such enterprises in Wyoming – a 22 percent increase since 2007. These companies employ approximately 18,100 people and bring in a combined revenue of $2.9 billion.
Wyoming native Lindsay Linton Buk recently returned to the state, after stints in New York and Los Angeles, to start her own photography studio. Unlike in big cities, where virtually every imaginable industry already exists and competition is fierce, she was able to blaze a trail in Jackson, a town of 10,532 people. From her perspective, Wyoming is the kind of place where hard work, courage and persistence is rewarded, regardless of your gender.
“What I found was that [creating my own path] was really exciting for me personally,” Linton Buk explains. “I have more of that entrepreneurial attitude, so it’s exciting to be in this place where nobody has really done what I want to create and do. I get to build that.”
Linton Buk’s current project, Women in Wyoming, celebrates “modern pioneer women” including Marilyn Kite, who features in her “breaking boundaries” series alongside Affie Ellis, Wyoming’s first Native American state senator, and Nimi McConigley, America’s first Indian-born citizen to be elected to state government and the first woman of color in the country to run a TV news station.
If you can dream it, you could be the first person in the state to create it. All it takes, says Linton Buk, is the courage – something Wyoming women have never been short on – to execute.
“I think courage [is] a big part of our history,” she explains. “Any woman that’s trying to expand into her potential – it takes a big leap of faith in yourself and, at the end of the day, you have to make it happen. Find the courage to persevere, and just keep going.”