On July 10, 1890, the Territory of Wyoming entered the American republic as the 44th state of the union. It’s nickname, the “Equality State” can seem somewhat of a misnomer given Wyoming’s conservative politics and high GDP (PPP) per capita (it ranks seventh in the union), but a closer look at this state’s relatively unknown history highlights how and why Wyoming came to be known as the Equality State.
First, though, let’s get some facts out of the way. Wyoming is the least populous state in the union, with only half a million people residing there. The largest city (and capital), Cheyenne, is home to about 64,000 souls, and the city of Laramie is its cultural capital. The University of Wyoming calls Laramie home.
Wyoming is considered to be the home state of the Cheney political dynasty, too, and Wyoming’s sole representative in the U.S. House is Liz Cheney, daughter of the much-loathed Dick Cheney, former vice president of the United States. Wyoming turned decidedly Republican in the mid-1960s with the advent of a new mining boom in the country. Somewhat ironically, Wyoming gets more federal money than any other state in the union save for Alaska (which is also dominated by the GOP, but not nearly as completely as Wyoming).
In 1889, Wyoming’s voters approved the first constitution in the world to grant women the right to vote. When the territory became a state one year later, suffrage was carried over and Wyoming became the first state in the union to grant voting rights to women. (Hence the nickname Equality State.)
Other states in the Rockies quickly followed Wyoming’s lead, with Idaho (1896), Utah (1896), and Colorado (1893) all granting full voting rights to women before the turn of the century. The fifth state to grant women’s suffrage, Washington, did not do so until 1910, well over a decade after Utah and Idaho granted suffrage.
So why did these “mountain west” states grant suffrage so much earlier than the rest of the country (and, indeed, the rest of the world)? There are two answers I’d to put forth here. One is relatively straightforward: the mountain west states were less populated than most states throughout the country, and this meant that these states needed all the help they could get when it came to churning out votes for political goodies from Washington.
A second, more controversial, answer is that these states - with their individualistic mores and relatively conservative politics - were simply more likely to grant every adult full voting rights due to their ideological and economic underpinnings. There’s an open secret in this country that Republican women are numerous, well-educated, and civically engaged, rather than shuttered up in the home and forced to cook and clean for their men.
Could the egalitarian impulse of the libertarian-ish mountain west simply be a different understanding of the notion of equality? It’s a question worth asking, especially now, given the political divisions that confront the republic.