Renee Laegried: The Right To Vote Was Their Most Radical Demand!


Renee Laegried is a historian who specializes in women’s history and the history of the American West.

She was born in Washington state and moved to Wyoming in 2012.

In this episode, Renee talks about the reasons Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote, the ways Wyoming has improved since then, and the facets of the state where there is still much work to be done.

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. 100 and 50-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: In this episode of First, But Last?, meet Renee Laegried. Renee specializes in the history of the American West. She is a western historian and a women's historian. Renee has many passions. She loves animals, painting and photography. She has also written two books, Women on the North American Plains and Riding Pretty: Rodeo Royalty in the American West. Welcome, Renee.

Renee Laegried: Thank you very much.

Emy diGrappa: What was your journey to Wyoming? Tell me that first, because I have so many other things I want to talk to you about.

Renee Laegried: Well, it took me a long time to get here. I uh, moved to Wyoming in 2012. And before that, well, I was born in Washington state. Moved up to Alaska, back down to the states for college. Back to Washington state, Northern Idaho, then Connecticut, Nebraska and, and finally here.

Emy diGrappa: That is quite a path.

Renee Laegried: Well, I always kind of explained my life is like being a water spider. When I was a kid I would stay at my aunt's ranch, and we'd play in the irrigation ditches. And I'd see these little water spiders kind of floating down the, the ditch, and they would land in a bunch of grass for a few minutes and then move on. And rest again and move on, and kind of go with the current, and that's kind of always how I've seen myself.

Emy diGrappa: Well you, you uh, were on a current that brought you to Wyoming.

Renee Laegried: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: But it also obviously made you have a passion for the American West. How did that happen?

Renee Laegried: I think spending so much time in the West in Washington state, in Nebraska, the Great Plains, being around the Great Plains. But, you know, in terms of scholarship, I didn't intend to start out to be a historian. I wanted to be a writer when I started college, and my parents told me, "For God's sake, do not be an English major. You will never, ever get a job." And so I was a little bit lost. Now what do I do? I thought about architecture, but that involves math. And a friend suggested interior design, which I liked for quite a while. But then I thought about teaching design, and I went to get my masters. And in the end I was lured in to the, the politics and the social changes behind design. I found that more interesting than art history part of it, once I decided to get a PhD in History.

Emy diGrappa: That is a great story. And I love how you made that journey from design into History.

Renee Laegried: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: And that you loved the pattern and the culture and the reason of the design more than-

Renee Laegried: (laughs) Than the-

Emy diGrappa: ... that's great.

Renee Laegried: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: Uh, how do you see women in business and politics, especially in Wyoming?

Renee Laegried: Oh, that's, that's a really great question, because I know you're going to be asking me more about Wyoming's history as the Equality State. You know, as a historian and, and a gender historian what I tend to do is, is look at women in, in their place. When I begin a research project with women in a particular place, I evaluate them in terms of place, which is like a large geographical place. For example, Wyoming Territory. And then space, which is a smaller portion of that larger place. And then the gender relationships that develop because of the economy and the people who are in a place in a space. By looking at space, which is a smaller piece of for example, Wyoming. It allows us to look at a place as a puzzle with lots of pieces instead of a one monolithic region, with one type of people.

Renee Laegried: And you know, Wyoming is, is very diverse. We have Native Americans, Euro-Americans, Hispanics, African Americans here. And when you're looking at the history of this state, people have moved in from all sorts of regions. So when Wyoming was first settled or when people were first moving in to the region, we had not only Midwestern contingent but also quite a few people from the South escaping the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War.

Renee Laegried: So gender relations are also really important that develop. I know a lot of people ask me about cowgirls, and cowgirls can be so strongly feminist or they think. But w- in reality the work that women do on ranches, in some ways, is very not feminist. But they're allowed to do the things that guys do, go ride horses, fix fence, rope cattle, because of the environment and the economy required women to step out of conventional roles and do what would be considered masculine things.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. So you're using feminist in a way then that I, different than what I was thinking. Because when I think of a feminist, I think of a woman who thinks she has every right that's equal to a man. Not being more feminine, but in the definition of f- of feminism.

Renee Laegried: And I'm thinking of feminism in, in your terms as, as well, but in many times in the West and when I study cowgirls, they are feminist in the terms of thinking and believing they can do any kind of work that the men, the boys can do, the guys can do. But in the same token, they are not necessarily advocating for more progressive legal reforms.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. So because you are a historian, you have a PhD in, in Western History, correct?

Renee Laegried: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: Or American Western History. What is it?

Renee Laegried: American History with a specialization in the West.

Emy diGrappa: Okay, thank you. And right now we are celebrating or we are commemorating actually, that Wyoming was the first state to give women the right to vote.

Renee Laegried: Yes.

Emy diGrappa: And why do you think that was?

Renee Laegried: The Women's Movement got started in 1845 at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York. And it would make absolutely perfectly good sense that New York would be the first state to give women the right to vote. But the uh, Suffragettes recognized that it would be really difficult to go through the legal process to get women the right to vote in a state. And they recognized that the best chance for Suffrage would be to happen in a territory, because the way that the Legislature is set up. In New York for example, to pass a Suffrage Bill there would need to be petitions, votes, amendments to the State Constitution, the Governor would have to sing it. But when William Bright offered his bill in the 1869, the only thing that had to happen for women to get the right to vote in Wyoming was 14 guys had to approve it and the Governor had to sign it, the bill.

Emy diGrappa: But-

Renee Laegried: That's it.

Emy diGrappa: ... why would those 14 guys approve it?

Renee Laegried: It's a really interesting question. Because one would think that, why would these guys want to do this? Well, the people who moved to Wyoming came from diverse areas. There were a number of progressive reformers from the Midwest, from New England. But there also people who were basically escaping Reconstruction South, and they were adamantly opposed to African American men having the right to vote. And one their arguments was, "Well heavens," if, if they use that word heavens, maybe they used something a little stronger. "If, if a black man can vote, my wife should be able to vote. My mother should be able to vote. My sister should be able to vote."

Emy diGrappa: Interesting.

Renee Laegried: You know, we tend to look at Suffrage as just this wonderful, happy thing that happened. And it was wonderful and it was very happy, but it's a very complex reason. They're a number of very complex reasons why people in South Pass City decided to put forward, how William Bright decided to put forward a Bill for Women's Suffrage.

Emy diGrappa: So I have another question, because... So at that time white men, white women, black men and black women were all given the right to vote, but not Native Americans, correct? Or is that not correct?

Renee Laegried: Some Native American men had been granted citizenship through the Dowes Act earlier uh, just very few. But n- n- Native Americans did not become Citizens of the United States until 1924, I believe.

Emy diGrappa: Wow. So tell me more about this time that

Renee Laegried: Oh, why-

Emy diGrappa: ... about why Wyoming, and why we were the first state?

Renee Laegried: Well, they're, they're other complicating factors. There was a competition amongst the territories to try to attract more women. There are a lot of men here and not a whole lot of women, and you know, you want to bring the ladies in. So perhaps by offering Suffrage, they would consider Wyoming Territory very progressive and want to move out here. Then there was also the competition amongst territories who would be the first. Washington state... No, Washington Territory had just tried to pass a Suffrage Bill and it had failed. Kansas was going to try to pass a bill. South Dakota's Bill had just failed. And so there was a sense of urgency. That perhaps if Wyoming could get this Suffrage Bill passed, they would go down in the annals of history as the first territory to allow women uncontested Suffrage Rights.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. Well, that's interesting. And think that's pretty cool, actually, that they-

Renee Laegried: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: ... wanted to be proud of that.

Renee Laegried: Oh yeah, yeah. And so eh- there's a mix of things. It wasn't completely altruistic. And actually, the next Legislative Session they tried to revoke Women's Suffrage. So-

Emy diGrappa: They're taking it back.

Renee Laegried: ... they wanted to take it back.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs)

Renee Laegried: Then it's really fun to look at these reasons. The men, it was Democrats in the state. It was a full Democratic Legislature. The next Legislative Session, when women had the right to vote, some Republicans had been elected to the Legislature. And some of the Democratic men thought that they'd been betrayed. The women should be voting for Democrats, 'cause Democrats gave them the right to vote.

Emy diGrappa: That's an interesting little uh, factoid there.

Renee Laegried: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: And what, what else have you learned in terms of just studying women in history in the American West? I was thinking, as I was thinking about why we were the first state, is that, I was thinking about all the tough women that decided to move out West. That, that could work a long side a man and, and did. And, and so it seemed like they weren't from the South and where everything was very gentrified and or even on the East Coast. Do you think that had anything to do with it?

Renee Laegried: About the equality?

Emy diGrappa: Yeah. About, about women's right to vote and about women's equality in Wyoming.

Renee Laegried: Well, there weren't very many women here when this, when the Suffrage Bill passed.

Emy diGrappa: Okay.

Renee Laegried: And in 1869, Native Americans still controlled most of the territory. We had a very thin slice of land that was eh, a corridor really that was from land under Euro-American control. And you think about the women who came out here, most of them were middle-class women who were coming with their husbands or their families. And their role wasn't necessary to go out in the mines, they, that wasn't their goal. Their goal was to civilize the West. And so they came out here with the in- intention of starting schools, developing civic institutions and doing their role as women within the Victorian Domestic Sphere, to become civilizers of this wild country.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, I see. That's another perspective that I haven't even thought of.

Renee Laegried: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: Gosh. What was driving people to move to Wyoming?

Renee Laegried: Economics.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, really?

Renee Laegried: Oh, yeah. It was, it was economics. Again, you've got some folks from the South that were coming here. Wyoming became a territory in 1869, that was only four years after the Civil War ended in the South. The Southern states were still under Reconstruction, under military rule. There were a lot of people that were moving out of here uh, or out of the South. And there were jobs here. There were railroad jobs. Again, mostly for, for single men. There were mining opportunities, and uh, that drew a lot of people. But a lot of those people were men, and not a lot of them brought their families with them. There was some. As, as Cheyenne became a town, as the Hell on Wheels Railroad Camps transitioned in to new towns, people were coming in establishing ranches and, and trying to farm. But it was the economics that drew them to the area.

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so right now today, as a woman today working in Wyoming and making your life here, what do you think has changed and what do think needs to change?

Renee Laegried: Historically speaking, it's, it's really in- interesting to look back at what happened at the Legislative Session in 1869, because they passed a bill that guaranteed women the same pay as men, men teachers for their same educational experience. They offered women, or they put in to law, that women should be paid the same as men for teaching based on experience. By 1874, there are already complaints that women were making barely half of what men did, even with that law in place. And if you look at the statistics now, Wyoming women still make significantly less than men. And I think as an, on the national average we're right at the bottom for, for pay equality between men and women.

Emy diGrappa: Wow, I didn't realize that. So we haven't improved in that area. Can you see some areas that we have improved in?

Renee Laegried: Well, we have one Legislator that goes to Washington D.C., and three in a row have been women. So that's, that's something.

Emy diGrappa: That's progress. Okay.

Renee Laegried: That's progress.

Emy diGrappa: (laughs)

Renee Laegried: (laughs)

Emy diGrappa: Can you think of anything else?

Renee Laegried: I think overall women are starting to become more engaged in, in politics, and that's really a very important and significant trend. You know, we, we have 49, roughly 49-percent of the state is women, 51-percent men. And yet, we have such a small number of women who are in politics. That's um, an area that needs to be addressed structurally as well as culturally.

Emy diGrappa: Okay. And so how are we going to be mentoring young women to succeed in Wyoming, so that they want to run for politics, for example?

Renee Laegried: There are a number of good groups already, Leap Into Leadership brings to mind. But like I said, structurally there needs to be incentives and encouragement for women to uh, get involved in politics, take leadership roles. For example, you know, they're doing the capital restoration over in Cheyenne, and there's a woman on, on the board who noticed that the, the bathroom for women in their remodel project was way smaller than the bathroom for men. And she called them on it. Said, "You know what, is this because there's so few women in politics and you don't expect a number of women in the Legislature to ever expand?" And really there's hardly there's even enough room on the drawing for a baby changing station. So unless people start supporting women, the child care needs. And j- just the support since women do tend to be the caregivers, either for children or for aging adult parents uh, it's going to be hard for them to become more engaged.

Emy diGrappa: Right. And is there any women or a woman that has inspired you-

Renee Laegried: Sure.

Emy diGrappa: ... in, in your life?

Renee Laegried: Oh, a lot. (laughs)

Emy diGrappa: That's good.

Renee Laegried: Yeah. I think one of the women who inspired me the most was my aunt. And I would go spend my summers on her Quarter Horse ranch in Eastern Washington in the summer. And hangout with her, she was a barrel racer. And I'd hangout with her-

Emy diGrappa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Renee Laegried: ... go to the all-girl rodeos with her. I'm, you know, she taught me a lot about what it meant to be a competent, confident woman.

Emy diGrappa: That's great.

Renee Laegried: Yeah.

Emy diGrappa: Well, it's been uh, great talking to you Renee. Thank you.

Renee Laegried: Well, thank you. I enjoyed it.

Emy diGrappa: 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.