Andrea Downing on how Wyoming Women Take the Lead

Before I was able to purchase a small place in Wyoming where I live part-year, I always thought of Wyoming as ‘the cowboy state.’ The symbol of a cowboy on a bucking horse is pervasive in the state, and shops and bars are plentiful in throwing around the word ‘cowboy.’ But the other nickname for the great state of Wyoming is ‘the equality state’ because, as any feminist historian may know, Wyoming was the very first place in the entire world to give women the vote. Although it’s often said that the decision to give women the vote had to do with the comparatively small population residing in Wyoming at the time, the pro-suffrage vote was generally along political party lines with the Democrats bringing in the law on December 10, 1869. At the time, there was something akin to five men for every woman in Wyoming.

Photo courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

In September 1870, women finally got their chance to cast their ballots…and apparently predominantly voted Republican. Later that year, women jurists served, and in 1871, the first female Justice of the Peace was elected. Women went on to serve in several capacities, including in the state legislature. However, in my own neck of the woods, in the valley of Jackson Hole, things were a bit slower to take off, but when they did, women certainly made their mark.
It’s difficult to believe that the area in which the town of Jackson now sits was once called Marysvale, but that was the original postal address for the area. The first homestead claims had been filed in the 1880s, mostly by men, with women and families arriving later. In 1893, Maggie Simpson became the official postmistress sitting on a property that now is the center of town. She renamed the district Jackson and, as everyone now knows, that is the name that stuck.

Photo courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

By 1900, the town was slowly developing and lots were being sold for housing and shops, but it remained a fairly laid-back place with no real government. It took another twenty years for a town council to be elected—all women! At the time, the population of Jackson was 307 and Grace Miller beat one Frank Lovejoy for the position of mayor, fifty-six to twenty-eight. The five-woman council was able to collect long-overdue taxes, improve road conditions, maintain the Town Square, control roaming livestock, give access to the cemetery, expand sewer and water systems, and install electric lighting and a phone service. They also employed the first Town Marshal, a woman! Pearl Williams had formerly been working at the drugstore as a clerk, but having been brought up on a ranch located between Jackson and Wilson, she had her own horse and could look after herself in the wild. Apparently, most of Pearl’s time was taken up giving interviews to reporters who loved the story of the female marshal in the wild west. The truth of the matter was that the town jail cells had no doors and the worst incidents Pearl apparently handled, aside from keeping stray cattle out of the town square, involved drunken cowboys.

My own first visit to Jackson was as a young girl in the 1960s. I don’t remember much other than going up to Yellowstone except that it was still a fairly quiet place reveling in its small-town life. I suppose in the 1970s when my book Always on My Mind is set, it was just beginning to evolve into what it is today—a vibrant place that welcomes men and women (!) from around the globe, pandemics permitting. And women, of course, continue to play a vital role in both the state government and the town of Jackson.

If you’d like to win an e-copy of Always on My Mind, comment below and let me know what you think it might have been like for a woman living in Jackson in the seventies. There certainly was a lot going on in the country at the time. Here’s the book’s blurb to give you some ideas: 1972 – Vietnam, the pill, upheaval, hippies.

Wyoming rancher Cooper Byrnes, deeply attached to the land and his way of life, surprises everyone when he falls for vagabond hippie Cassie Halliday. Fascinated and baffled, he cannot comprehend his attraction—or say the words she wants to hear.
Cassie finds Coop intriguingly different. As she keeps house for him and warms his bed at night, she admits to herself she loves him but she misinterprets Coop’s inability to express his feelings.
Parted, each continues to think of the other, but how can either of them reach out to say, “You were ‘always on my mind’?”


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25 thoughts on “Andrea Downing on how Wyoming Women Take the Lead”

  1. Good morning Andrea- I had my #1 bucket list dream in 2017, completed. My husband and I visited Wyoming, we visited your beautiful town Jackson, Yellowstone and many various towns going and coming from our home in Southwest Kansas. Wyoming is now my favorite state to visit, I’d love to move there, but that’s still a work in progress in convincing my hubby.
    I loved your blog and hearing that women basically ran Jackson makes me love that town even more. If I had the money, I’d love to stay in Jackson and visited everything I missed the 1st time and the other historic sites I know are calling to me.
    Thank you for this amazing history lesson.
    Happy Memorial Day, God Bless you and yours.

    • Tonya, I keep finding new things in Jackson to visit or attend so it’s no surprise you weren’t able to get it all in. And winter is so different from summer. We had our first Native American PowWow last year, too…and the rodeo, of course, is always different one year to the next. Hope you’re able to get back!

    • Hi Andrea – Your article is great!! I’ve researched and written about women achieving suffrage next door in Colorado, 2nd to Wyoming, 19 years later. Also, when I lived and worked in Mammoth, Yellowstone in ‘73, Jackson and YP were still wonderfully Wild West, as you said. Hope to see you down the road! Joyce

      • Thanks so much Joyce. I’m glad you covered CO, and equally glad you worked at Mammoth, one of my favorite areas of the park–in fact, I had planned on writing about the fort there but unfortunately the pandemic took away my proposed visit to take more photos and do more research. Stay safe!

  2. I lived through the 70’s and I don’t think it was that much different then today. I think the drugs are even worse today then in the 70’s. Women may have a little more respect today then back in the 70’s but they still don’t get paid the same as men. So really in truth men still rule over women.

    • I think we’re making progress, however. It is strange that I learned companies headed by women apparently make about 30% more than those headed by men! And yet… Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Good morning! I honestly do not remember all this history about Wyoming. It would have been a great place to be a woman in the 1800’s especially but also in the 70’s. Since I was born in ’68 I don’t think I truly grasp the whole woman’s movement and what it would have been like. Today’s womans movements I often don’t “get” though and feel like I live in a different reality than some woman. I’ve yet to read one of your books but I would love the opportunity. Stay safe during these uncertain times.

    • Stephanie, I have a 36 year old daughter who is more of a feminist than I ever was but I still don’t think she can garner exactly how women lived in the seventies. If you were molested in any way by a man at work you truly had no one to turn to. Nowadays, a woman like my daughter wouldn’t put up with that nonsense for a split second. One friend who read my book says she remembers her parents talking about how awful it was that a neighbor’s daughter had a baby out of wedlock. Now no one turns a hair over it, except perhaps in highly religious communities. Times change. You stay safe, too!

  4. Good Morning Andrea! Thank you for your interesting post! Women may “appear” to be the weaker vessel, but our warrior spirits run deep.

    Happy Weekend!

  5. Good morning. I have always wanted to go there. Its on my bucket list. Hopefully one day I’ll make it there. Thank you for sharing.

  6. How interesting! A town run by women right down to the Marshall. I really enjoyed reading this post today, which is giving me all kinds of ideas. I loved your book too and highly recommend it!

    • Yes, Patti, there’s definitely a book in there somewhere! Although that town council doesn’t particularly look like a bunch of heroines, LOL. Thanks for the recommendation and for stopping by.

  7. I learned so much from your post, Andi!
    I love that women were getting so much accomplished
    That many years ago and being respected for it. We know women have been getting the job done for centuries, without being acknowledged. The 70’s were such a tumultuous time everywhere. I was a young (17) woman working in an office on the docks in Seattle and put up with a lot of stuff. Hopefully women in Wyoming were still being respected and recognized for their intellect and abilities as they had been in the previous decades. I have a new found respect for that beautiful state! Thank you!

    • I was thinking things had come along nicely since the seventies but then I remembered the Harvey Weinstein case so maybe not as far as we’d like to think! And then there are the parallels between the Nixon era and today. But as for Wyoming, I think the need for women has given them the freedom and respect to be whatever they want. My two cents anyway. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Wyoming is my favorite state to visit every July. A few years ago, a cattle drive was underway, and guess what, the foreman was a woman in her sixties riding the most beautiful dapple gray mare I’d ever seen. She was so hospitable, weather worn, and a very trim woman. I loved meeting her. Spunk! Oh, and she wore spurs. The total package. Her 5 year old grandson accompanied her. He was the total package too. So handsome. Women are amazing …and continue to be. I’m proud of our pioneer women and their accomplishments. Thank you for providing this most interesting blog. Enjoyed reading it. Jackson Hole is an interesting place. Elk herds are not hard to come by. The mountains are stunning. And to think women were involved in so much of it’s history. I’m proud.

    • Kathy, what a wonderful experience! I had a similar one–but actually was staying on a ranch in NV. Took a close up of the woman’s fabulous spurs, and her tiny son got up on his pony and stood on the saddle for a photo as well. I’m so glad you appreciated this post–I was amazed to find women had been so important in Jackson and that there’d been a female marshal. And yes, elk are certainly not hard to come by out there–I’ve almost hit one driving at night. Ditto moose!

  9. We have been to Jackson Hole twice. The first time about 2010 and the second with our grandson in 2013 on a big trip out West.
    1972 was the year we got married, and it was a bit of an unsettled time. I had just returned from 3 years in the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia and my husband was in B-52’s in the Air Force being sent over to join the conflict in Vietnam. His first tour was the first 5+ months of that year and his second tour began 5 weeks after we got married the beginning of June.

    The anti-war movement was strong and hippies were still pretty prominent. I would think that Jackson at that time would have been a bit removed from the extremes of the time. Their sons, fathers, and some daughters were joining the military and being sent to Vietnam, some of them never to return. I think that area would have been supportive of the troops, if not the war. Considering the strong women’s traditions, I would not be surprised if the percentage of women who served from there would have been higher than in other areas. Any anti-war action would have been small. I think the hippies would have been in the area in the summer. If for no other reason, it was on the way to Yellowstone where I think some of them would have gone to commune with nature. With so many men away serving, women very likely stepped up and filled many of the roles like they did a century before. Personal opinion – with more women in charge, I think the area would have been more tolerant than much of the rest of the nation, even if a little bit conservative.

    Thank you for an interesting post. Stay safe and healthy.

    • Thanks for your interesting comments, Patricia. In fact, only 5000 women served in Viet Nam and of that, all were nurses except 9!–in armed forces administration. In Jackson Hole, the ranching families would have been subject to exemptions as–to use today’s expression–essential workers, for farming and ranching. The area would have been more conservative than it is today–today it is the most liberal area of Wyoming due to the high proportion of outsiders who have moved in, retired there and so on. Always on My Mind, my book, is based on an actual incident that took place between ranchers and hippies in my local dancehall in the ’70s in Wilson, a village in Jackson Hole just outside Jackson.
      My thanks to you and your husband for serving (I think the Peace Corps certainly counts!) and I hope you get back to WY one day.

  10. My thanks to the P and P gals for having me here–I’ve enjoyed meeting y’all. I’ll be in touch with Caryl shortly via email. And if you’re ever out in Jackson, stop by and say howdy!

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