This is a guest post by Sam Hicks.
I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.
–Pearl Hart, highway woman extraordinaire
Pearl was one of many women (and men) who found a measure of freedom and equality in the American West. The West is too often viewed simplistically as ‘the systematic extermination and dispossession of Native Americans and Latinos by white men.’ This view, aside from whitewashing out of existence the invaluable contributions of African Americans, trivializing conflicts between Native Americans, and neglecting the complex contributions of Latinos, ignores the role women played in the history of the West. It suggests a history of the West in which women (if they appear at all) were passive, mobile incubators for fetal cowboys…or dancing girls. This results in a tendency to ignore the West when discussing women in the 19th century and the suffrage movement in a preference to focus on activities in the Northeast.
In 1805, near what is now Astoria, Oregon, the members of the Corps of Discovery took a vote–every member! York, William Clark’s slave, and Sacagawea were afforded equal rights with every other member of the expedition. This is even more remarkable because York and Sacagawea were both owned by other members—her husband had purchased her from the Hidatsa where she was a slave. As remarkable as this is to the modern eye, to those on the spot the event was unremarkable—at least none of them remarked on its novelty at the time. When this American polity in miniature (landowning intellectuals, slaves, the landless poor, yeomen farmers and artisans, immigrants, Native Americans, and women) left the boundaries of the nation and entered the furthest reaches of the frontier, it also left behind its injustices and inequality. It was obligatory that when deciding where they would spend the winter they would consult all the members equally.
Charley Parkhurst is another important example of the opportunities found in the West. Born Mary Parkhurst in 1812, Charley would live his entire adult life as a man. He moved to California, swore liberally, drove stagecoaches, killed at least one bandit, lost one eye, and may have voted in the election of 1868. Unfortunately, Charley also enjoyed the manly act of chewing tobacco and died of tongue cancer in 1879.
Upon his death, friends and neighbors discovered his secret—but revealed only another important truth of life in the West; it is nobody’s business how someone else lives. His obituary reads:
He was in his day one of the most dexterous and celebrated of the famous California drivers ranking with Foss, Hank Monk, and George Gordon, and it was an honor to be striven for to occupy the spare end of the driver’s seat when the fearless Charley Parkhurst held the reins of a four- or six-in-hand.
Charley was only one of the many people of who escaped to the West to seek freedom and a modicum of equality, free of the social expectations and cult of domesticity so prevalent in 19th century America. Seattle may have been founded by useless Victorian capitalists, but unconventional women like Lou Graham—who used her criminal empire to fund public education—actually made Seattle a success.
The West also provided a sanctuary for a far larger and more orderly group, the Mormons. While the Mormons were also misfits seeking a new home in the West, Mormons are generally not noted as pioneers of feminism. However, did you know that when Utah’s territorial government enfranchised women in 1870 they gave 17,000 women the right to vote? This was the largest female electorate on Earth at the time. In 1887, however, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which prohibited women’s suffrage in Utah—but only Utah. That same year, the Territorial Supreme Court of Washington overturned women’s suffrage, leaving Wyoming as the only state where women enjoyed voice in government.
Fortunately, “The Equal Rights State” was not alone for long. Over the next 33 years nearly all the states and territories of the West achieved women’s suffrage. Colorado saloons and breweries campaigned heavily against it, but the tipsy patrons were convinced by the persuasive female staff.
The votes of the Western women became very important after 1908. In the 1916 election the votes of women in California probably decided the election. In 1916, women in California did something unconventional; they split their ballot and voted for the progressive Republican governor and for the progressive Democratic president. The men in the smoke filled rooms didn’t know what hit them.