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Wyoming, 1870 – The Accidental First Suffragettes: a Political Breakthrough for Women  

Early in 1870, while the Wyoming Governor was away in the East, Edward Lee became the Acting Governor. He, with the legal help of one of the state Supreme Court Justices, appointed three women to vacancies for Territorial Justice of the Peace positions. The terms were shortened in order to put them on a consistent schedule with the first Territorial elections. Esther Morris and two other women became the first women (in the world, perhaps) to be appointed to a significant public office.  

Esther was appointed as Justice of the Peace for the South Pass City area. She viewed her position as ‘a test of woman’s ability to hold public office’. Unfortunately, she had to give up the office less than a year later as the foreshortened initial term expired and she could not get a nomination from either party for re-election. She did handle 26 cases, mostly assault and battery and collection of debts. In the end, Esther did not leave the Territory. Instead, she and her husband parted when she stayed in Wyoming along with her grown sons, who had decided to remain in Wyoming, living in Cheyenne and Laramie.  

Late in 1870, a court in Laramie empanelled some women as jurors, which provoked the Eastern media once again, since they would be involved in judging men, but, like Esther Morris, they did their duty properly and the controversy died down.  

In that same year, September 8 was Wyoming’s first Territorial Election Day. A 69-year old grandmother, Louisa Swain, had walked from home to downtown Laramie to do some shopping. Once there, she noticed the local polling place was just opening up and, on the spur of the moment, decided she would vote. The person in charge of the voting place let the elderly lady in a bit early and in doing so, Louisa Swain became the first legal voter in a general election, as opposed to a local election, such as for a school board. Her ballot in Wyoming and likely in the US, and maybe in the world, marked an important shift in women’s rights, though the general acceptance of female suffrage would take decades to become law.