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Alaska's suffrage history worth touting

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published December 11, 2008

Today, Dec. 12, marks the anniversary of the first permanent granting of suffrage to women in the United States, in the Territory of Wyoming in 1869. While 2008 did not turn out to be the "year of the woman" in presidential politics, women have made extraordinary political strides in recent years. Neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton as the likely third woman secretary of state, nor Gov. Sarah Palin as the second woman vice-presidential candidate have raised many eyebrows for being female.

Advances in politics do not mean complete equity, however, and gender inequities in pay, status and opportunity are still very pronounced. This was predicted by those women leaders long ago who did not think winning suffrage meant much.

The women's rights movement arose in conjunction with the 1830s abolitionist movement. Activists such as Sarah and Angelina Grimke used the abolitionist platform to argue for the same rights for women as for blacks. Some women's advocates, such as Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, chastised the Grimkes and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who organized the Seneca Falls women's rights convention in 1848, for stepping "outside the domestic and social sphere" to advocate for full equality for women. Stanton answered that she knew nothing "of men's rights and women's rights." Whatever is morally right for a man to do, she wrote, "it is morally right for a woman to do."

Women activists had high hopes when the requisite number of states passed the Civil War amendments to the U.S Constitution, the 13th in 1865, freeing the slaves, the 14th in 1868, proclaiming all citizens equal before the law, and the 15th in 1870, guaranteeing the right to vote. Passage of the suffrage law in Wyoming Territory was a manifestation of that confidence. But the division between radicals and temporizers was as strong then as earlier, and split the women's movement into two separate organizations, one led by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who opposed the 15th amendment because it was silent on gender rights, the other by Lucy Stone, who advised that half a loaf was better than none.

Wyoming was not alone. Western territories and states took the lead in guaranteeing women's suffrage. Utah Territory approved it in 1870, only to have the U.S. Congress disallow that action in 1887; Utah entered the union of states with a constitution including women's suffrage in 1895. In the meantime, Wyoming came in as the first state to allow women to vote in 1890, followed by Colorado in 1893. Arizona and Oregon granted the right in 1912 and Montana in 1914.

These latter must be seen in the context of the Progressive movement that swept the nation between 1901 and World War I, ushering in a host of democratic reforms. Progressivism explains Alaska as well, where in 1913 the first law passed by the first territorial Legislature was the enfranchisement of women. As Alaska historian Beverly Beeton has shown, the Socialist Party organizer Lena Morrow Lewis included suffrage in her 1912 campaign for Alaska Congressional Delegate, raising the visibility of the issue in Alaska and contributing to its success here.

Yet the disappointment of women in the National Woman Suffrage Association over the failure of the Civil War amendments to bring full civil equality to women was as bitter as that suffered by blacks after 1877 when the federal government gave up trying to remake the South and turned over to the Southern states the "guarantees" of civil liberties.

The campaign over the 1970s equal rights amendment manifested a different division, between women satisfied with the status quo, exemplified by Anita Bryant and Donna Fargo, and movement advocates such as Gloria Steinem and other founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Today Governor Palin is both lionized and disdained Outside as a populist trailblazer, starkly differing reactions she has handled with aplomb. Alaska's history is mostly one of welcoming women; the early suffrage law seems a clear indication of that. As she promotes Alaska around the country, the governor could enlarge the state's reputation by recalling that history.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.