Mary Guthrie: Women Who Changed The Course Of History In Wyoming


Mary Guthrie was born and raised in Newcastle, Wyoming.

She attended the University of Wyoming where she received a B.A. in English.

At the age of 36, she earned her Juris Doctorate and later served as a deputy Wyoming Attorney General.

Recently, she wrote the play ‘Wonderful Wyoming Women Voters’ about some of the notable women who made history in Wyoming.

In this episode, Mary talks about her motivation to go back to school at 36, the people who mentored her, and the delights and challenges of writing a screenplay.

Emy diGrappa: Welcome to First, But Last? Brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities, I am your host, Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the equality state because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out, and thank you for listening.

Emy diGrappa: Today, we are talking to Mary Guthrie. She was born and raised in Newcastle, Wyoming. Her Wyoming roots go back to 1880 when her grandfather arrived in Wyoming to establish a sheep ranch. She attended the University of Wyoming, where she received a BA in English, but later earned her Juris Doctorate, and she also served as a Deputy Wyoming Attorney General. Welcome, Mary.

Mary Guthrie: Thank you.

Emy diGrappa: I love that your grandfather arrived in Wyoming to establish a sheep ranch. So, you actually grew up on a sheep ranch?

Mary Guthrie: No, we had this very interesting family. My grandfather was 62 years old when my father was born. And so, he died when my father was a young man, and father established a law practice and ranched until he was in his middle thirties, and then he sold the ranch, and just with a lawyer and then later on a judge.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, okay. So, your, your father was a judge and he sold the ranch that he grew up on then?

Mary Guthrie: That is correct. But you see, there should be many more generations of us in Wyoming but the fact my grandfather was so old when my father was born makes it so I'm only a second generation Wyomingite.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, that's another interesting, Mary. And one thing you were saying before I hit the record button that I was really enjoying is that you were saying that you were 30 when you got your law degree? Why was that?

Mary Guthrie: I was 36. Well, I'm what one would call a pre-baby boomer, and was married after I graduated from college, and then my former husband did a year of graduate work, and then also went to law school. And at that time, it was just assumed that the wife would work so that everybody could eat. And so, we were what I called a blonde scholarship. So, I didn't go back to law school until I was in my early thirties.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, okay. But the fact that you went back and had the courage to return to school, was that hard?

Mary Guthrie: Oh, no. I think going to school is one of the easiest things you can do, and especially if you're a little bit older and more mature. It's much easier because some of the people in your classes are still sort of trying to grow up. John Grisham, the wonderful crime writer, has described law school as a babysitter for directionless post grads. So, I think that in law school, like every other place, you're going to find people that probably aren't going to be very serious students.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs) Well as a woman growing up in Wyoming, how do you, how do you view yourself, especially as it relates to business and politics?

Mary Guthrie: Well, I view myself as being very lucky. I think that, given the fact that there are fewer people in Wyoming than other places, in some ways it's much easier easier to establish connections, relationships, and in many ways I think is- isn't a bad thing to be a big fish in a small pond.

Mary Guthrie: So, I think it can be to one's advantage to have lived in Wyoming. We, many of us all went to school at the University of Wyoming, and so you've been able to get to know people and they get to know you and recognize your ability.

Emy diGrappa: Well, that- that's really true. I think, I think it is amazing to be in a state where there's such a small population and you can literally know somebody in every county, and I'm sure you do.

Mary Guthrie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I think of my 17 years at the Attorney General's Office. I worked for six attorney generals and four governors, and so it was a really wonderful experience to be able to see how decisions were made in Wyoming, to be part of representing the state in, in legal matters.

Mary Guthrie: And, again, I think sometimes it doesn't hurt for the state to be much smaller because it does give people opportunities that, otherwise, you might not have. I doubt that there are people in big states who could be greeted, probably even by a kiss on the cheek, by a lot of former governors.

Emy diGrappa: Oh. Well, (laughs) that's the other side of you we don't know about, right?

Mary Guthrie: Yeah. Well, no, no. But I mean, you know, let's face it. Politicians kiss old ladies and babies.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs) Oh, Mary. Well, I don't think of you as an old lady, but I, I have been really intrigued and, and just amazed that you took the time and the energy to write this play called, Wonderful Wyoming Women Voters. And, what was your passionate in doing this?

Mary Guthrie: Well, I was visiting with a group of friends one day who were members of the League of Women Voters, and we were talking about the reopening of the Wyoming State Capitol after it had been rehabilitated for the last three and a half or four years. And it appeared that there was nothing that a great historical interest that was going to be performed on the day of the opening.

Mary Guthrie: There were going to be bands and food trucks and that kind of thing, so we just decided that it would be informative and also fun to dig into the whole idea of women's suffrage and to prepare play.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. So, you really did this on, on behalf of League of Women Voters?

Mary Guthrie: Right, right. Well, not on behalf. It was sort of my idea to do it, but we decided that it would be an important thing. It turns out that the League of Women Voters was established nationally after the passage of the amendment that gave women the right to vote in federal elections in 1920.

Mary Guthrie: And so, voting, obviously, has b- has been an important part of the League forever.

Emy diGrappa: Right.

Mary Guthrie: Or, at least the last hundred years, yeah.

Emy diGrappa: And how, how long have you been serving on the League of Women Voters?

Mary Guthrie: Oh, I'd been a member off and on for a long time. I have been a fallen-away member until I went to a meeting where it, where they were talking about wanting to do something historical. And since I had worked on that project for the city of Cheyenne and I'd worked on another project for a group I belong to that was celebrating its 150th, I thought it might be relatively easy to pull all this information together.

Emy diGrappa: So, what is the mission of the League of Women Voters?

Mary Guthrie: Well, basically it's a nonpartisan group whose function is basely to educate people in civic issues, just to make sure that we have a, a much better informed electorate. But they take no partisan position on anything. They don't support people who are voting, and they wouldn't support anything that's related to a political party.

Mary Guthrie: It's basically just an educational group of high-minded women who believe that we can all be better if we know more about the country and the issues it faces.

Emy diGrappa: Do you mentor young women to participate?

Mary Guthrie: Well, not in this so much, but I, through the years, have mentored a lot of young women. It's, when I worked for the Attorney General's Office, I have several women works with me and, and for me, and I belonged to several social and educational organizations in town and I always managed to have a, a woman or two that I think needs to be mentored.

Mary Guthrie: During my teaching, I taught in a high school for a couple years. And then after I retired as an attorney, I taught at the local community college for 12 years. And at that time, I mentored a lot of the young women, so I think it's very important to pass along my experience and advice to other people and, and help them succeed.

Mary Guthrie: I was very lucky to have a couple of wonderful mentors. One was Thyra Thomson, whose was the secretary of state for 24 years. And I had known Mrs. Thomson just briefly personally, but when I worked for the Attorney General's Office I got to really know her, and she mentored me in, in many, many ways.

Mary Guthrie: And then, the other one was this crafty old man from Oklahoma who was the commissioner of public lands, and it was wonderful to see him in action and see how you can approach issues and solve problems and, yet, do it very civilly. So, I, I count myself very lucky to have had two wonderful mentors in my life.

Emy diGrappa: Oh yes, absolutely. And going back to your play, Wonderful Wyoming Women Voters, tell me how you set the stage and why you chose the women you chose to represent the message. And, what is, what is the final message that you want people to take away?

Mary Guthrie: Well, the final message is just to celebrate this extraordinary experiment that happened in Wyoming, but also to educate people. A lot of misconceptions float around her about women's suffrage. Like, one of them is that the only reason women got the right to vote was Wyoming wanted to become a territory or a state, and neither of them, of those is true. We became a territory a year before the suffrage bill was passed, and we certainly didn't become a state for 30 some more years.

Mary Guthrie: So, that was one of them. The other miss of, you know, why suffrage was passed, and we just decided it would be fun. And so, the original script that I wrote, and also, all of my work was heavily edited by a dear friend of mine, who's a retired journalism teacher who was at the local community college.

Mary Guthrie: But the first script I wrote, I included two men in the play. William Bright's a, the man from South Pass City who introduced the bill, and then also Governor John Campbell who signed the bill, and then made sure that Wyoming suffrage wasn't repealed a couple of years later.

Mary Guthrie: And, I talked to some of my friends and they said, "Oh, Mary, why don't we do it this way? Why don't we just have it an all woman perspective?" So, it went from having four characters or five characters with two men to a play with four women. The history was sorted through their lens. I'm not sure I, I answered that question the way you wanted me to answer it.

Emy diGrappa: No, no. That was fine. So, you ultimately chose four women, and so you have a narrator, you have Julia Bright, you have Esther Hobart Morris-

Mary Guthrie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: ... and Amalia Post, and Theresa Jenkins. Those are your four women, right?

Mary Guthrie: That is correct, that is correct. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: Okay, and describe each of their parts in, in this play.

Mary Guthrie: Okay. Well, Julia Bright is this young Southern woman. Well, I guess Virginia is the South, I have a good friend who would certainly tell me that, and she was married to William Bright who proposed the legislation. And nowhere have I been able to find any definitive information about why Bright himself wanted suffrage.

Mary Guthrie: Now, it's a fascinating thing, too, Emy, that the idea of women voting was bounced around a long time. Women suffragists were meeting in New York in like 1848 at Seneca Falls. The territory of Utah actually tried passing a bill on women's suffrage in 1854. There were some other attempts of territories, but all these efforts failed.

Mary Guthrie: But anyway, here's Julia, this young Southern woman who ended up moving to South Pass City with her husband. And so, we see his decisions through her lens, which makes it really sort of fun. And that's the first one.

Mary Guthrie: Then, the second character is Esther Hobart Morris. And, Esther Hobart Morris is an icon in Wyoming. In fact, her statue is in Statuary Hall and in the capital in Washington D.C., and there's a, a statue of her that's in our Capitol Building, and she is known as the first woman who ever served as the justice of the peace in the world.

Mary Guthrie: There are some people who think that she was active in suffrage issues and some who reject that view. So, we basically just looked at her fine role as a justice of the peace, and she was a character. She was 55 years old, she was 6 feet tall, weighed 280 pounds, and probably could control any situation she ever had to deal with.

Mary Guthrie: Then, Amalia Post is the third person, and she was a, a businesswoman when she moved to Cheyenne and became concerned when there was an effort to repeal the law. As you well know, suffrage was passed in 1869. In 1871, the territorial legislators came to town and passed a bill repealing women's suffrage, and I think that's something that a lot of people don't know about.

Mary Guthrie: So then, Amalia Post, who had some kind of friendship or business relationship with Territorial Governor John Campbell, actually lobbied him to veto the bill, and that's where that language that you liked on page eight or something, the letter that he sent to her. So, we have Amalia, who we call the savior of women's suffrage because if the bill had gone through, we would've have had women suffrage for two years. (laughs) And then, we wouldn't be celebrated-

Emy diGrappa: And that's it.

Mary Guthrie: Yeah, we wouldn't be celebrating 150 years at all. Then, the third years old woman is Theresa Jenkins, and I mentioned earlier. She was active in suffrage issues, temperance issues, a variety of social issues in Cheyenne. And in 1889, there was talk when the Constitution was being prepared, before we became a state in 1890, there was talk of taking the suffrage language out of the Wyoming Constitution, and she was able to convince people, many of her friends, to go talk to territorial legislators and tell them that they shouldn't mess around with women suffrage.

Mary Guthrie: And then the delightful part of this story is that after she did this, and she had gone around town driving her horse and buggy, that night she went home and had a baby. So, that shows how tough Wyoming women can be. (laughs)

Emy diGrappa: (laughs)

Mary Guthrie: And then, she was also an extraordinary orator, and then she even was very active in Republican politics. She was the first woman to ever attend a Republican National Convention. So, those are our women. We have Julia, Esther, Amalia, and Theresa.

Emy diGrappa: And when you were writing those conversation and going back and forth between these four characters, and also you have a narrator, so that's, that's five people that are basically on stage. And when you were writing this, what were the words that just really hit home with you?

Mary Guthrie: Esther Hobart Morris had had a fascinating life, and that certainly resonated. And then, that's a hard question, because they all were such different characters and, but it really is hard. I'm certainly not a professional dramatist. I will not be winning the Pulitzer Prize this year.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs)

Mary Guthrie: But at the same time, you put words down on paper. And then when someone turns around and reads them, it's very different. When I worked for the state, and then I also worked for the city of Cheyenne, I sometimes ghostwrote speeches and I would come up with what I thought was a brilliant speech. And then, I would read it aloud and I would think, "Oh, nobody's going to even want to deliver this or listen to this."

Mary Guthrie: So, I think there is a real magic quality about converting words on paper to words that come out of people's mouths, and are credible, and that people want to listen to. This was not an easy project. I did, though, write the play in one night, and then honed it a lot, and then my wonderful friend, Ros, was very helpful. And so, she and I both say that we wrote the play.

Emy diGrappa: Well, yeah. And, and so you're right. It's really is a gift and as magic, as you said, to make words come to life and-

Mary Guthrie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: ... where they have meaning to people. So, that's why I was trying to figure out. When you were writing this and when you were doing your research, what light in your head went on about the suffrage movement?

Mary Guthrie: Well, the fact was is that these were women who were probably ordinary women in some ways. They all had obligations, they all had a much harder life than we had today, but they had some kind of zeal. They had some kind of patience, and you really about some of the, the national suffragists. And getting the right for women to vote, for many of them, was their whole life. Many of them never married, and it was just this extraordinary zeal and passion that they had to make sure that women would be given certainly a very basic right in, you know, our government.

Mary Guthrie: I recently read a, an article about Susan B. Anthony. And until she died, she was able to pursue the cause. She actually, interesting thing, she voted for a president before women were able to vote in federal elections, was actually charged with a crime, and convicted. (laughs)

Mary Guthrie: She never went to prison, or jail, but I would think of all the, the women that gave their lives for right to vote, Anthony's right up there. And then, you know, in England, there was a big suffrage movement and the English women were really not treated as nicely as the American women. Many of them were jailed. There's a fascinating movie out, probably 15 years ago, Iron Jaw Maiden that's all about how women were jailed and treated so very badly because they wanted to make sure that people could vote.

Emy diGrappa: Yes, that, that seems unreal in this day and age.

Mary Guthrie: Doesn't it?

Emy diGrappa: Yes, it does.

Mary Guthrie: You had been wanting to be abolitionists because they were, most of these strong women were certainly opposed to slavery. They were temperance supporters, and then also voter supports. So, that would have taken up all the time. (laughs)

Emy diGrappa: Yeah, really. (laughs) Yeah. When you think of the luxury of having a computer in this day and age, they didn't have any of that.

Mary Guthrie: Or, you know, think of a washing machine. When you think of, you know, you'd have to heat the water and then, I don't know whether you'd use a washboard or whatever, but it's a very different world that we now enjoy with different kinds of time saving devices.

Mary Guthrie: Again, when you think about how hard their lives were, it does just sort of boggle my mind how strong these women were, not to say modern women aren't strong, but it was a different sort of strength that these women had, and especially since they had so many, I'm sure, so many family obligations.

Emy diGrappa: Well yeah, and the amount of time it takes to do something in terms of taking care of children, and making dinner-

Mary Guthrie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: ... and, you know, just working. And, and we have so much ease at our disposal-

Mary Guthrie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: ... that, you know, washing clothes by hand, I can't even imagine that, really. (laughs)

Mary Guthrie: (laughs) Well, I can't either, and I think all three, well, Esther Hobart Morris' husband was not supportive of her activities, but these other three women's husbands appeared to be supportive. In fact, Morris' husband didn't want her to be a justice of the peace. And so, he actually protested, he went to her courtroom one day, and acted up, and she actually had him jailed.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs) Good for her.

Mary Guthrie: She subsequently left him too, so, yeah.

Emy diGrappa: Well, okay. Mary, it's been great talking to you.

Mary Guthrie: Well, I hope that this is, be helpful. And I really had fun doing this, and I'm glad you enjoyed our play. Fun fact: I went to Rotary today and sat next to the state librarian and he said, "Huh," 'cause there's a nice little story in today's paper about the, the play. He said, "Huh, would you like to be put on the library circuit and maybe we can take our play around to different libraries in the state?" So, who knows? We might end up in Teton County.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, my gosh. Okay, I hope to see you soon, Mary. Thank you so much.

Mary Guthrie: Good luck, goodbye.

Emy diGrappa: Bye. Thank you for listening to First, But Last? Brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at, where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey, and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the equality state. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.