The legacy of Louisa Ann Swain and the continuing struggle for equality

Nov 22, 2020 | 9 comments

Wyoming’s Louisa Ann Swain

On December 10, 1869, Wyoming Territorial Governor John Allen Campbell, citing a “progression of understanding,” signed an act of the Territorial Legislature granting white women the right to vote, the first U.S. state or territory to grant suffrage to women. On September 6, 1870, Louisa Ann Swain of Laramie, Wyoming became the first woman to cast a vote in a general election.

In 1890, Wyoming, with a Republican governor and Democratic legislature, insisted it would not accept statehood without keeping women’s suffrage. When the U.S. Congress demanded Wyoming rescind the right of women to vote as a condition of statehood, the Wyoming legislature fired back in a telegram: “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without women.” Congress gave in, and thus, in becoming the 44th state, Wyoming became the first U.S. state in which women could vote.

On January 20, 2021, Kamila Harris, a mixed-race woman from Oakland, California will become the Vice-President of the United States of America, affirming the same progression of understanding initiated in Wyoming and underscoring a commitment for parity under the law.

I have long been concerned about the inequality women endure, not only politically, but culturally. Frankly, I much prefer a community of women engaged in communal exchange rather than a cadre of chest-thumping men itching to war over “norms” that wiser men and women long ago relegated to the dust bin of history.

I am familiar with the antiquated axiom: “Men write history.” But, when I want to know more about the incremental process of conversation and social interaction that led to the decisions recorded in the textbooks of history, I look to the writings of women for it is here that we discover the full measure of who we are as people.

I take umbrage at those who objectify women. Describing the allure of a woman through a lens focused solely on her body is akin to displaying a slave on an auction block highlighting muscle tone, or good teeth.

What is this, 1847?  It was loathsome then and equally repulsive now.

If you listen carefully you will hear a nearly silent chant coming from Tibet, a country suffering under the weight of a powerful suppressive government breeding terrorism and squashing efforts to promote unity and faith in the future. It is the wind that carries the chant; it is a mantra of hope, union,  peace, equality and faith that rejects the jackal’s howl of the uninformed, the greedy, and the just plain lazy distracted by their own insecurities  and compensated with over-sized expectations.

Unfortunately, we are witnessing several countries, some quite close to home, guilty of following suit and under the cover of unrelenting racket seeks to build walls to isolate the marginalized and to subjugate and silence those with a more refined feminine voice.

It is well past time to draw sharp attention to the craven immorality embedded in the practice of demeaning and objectifying others based on their sex — and it is incumbent for us to recognize and reverse our complaisance.

When Louisa Ann Swain signed her name on a ballot, insisting that her voice be heard, she lit a candle that became a torch that became a bonfire in the hearts of many. Her signature took but a moment but ignited a century of determination that equality will prevail. All people are created equal is not just a string of pretty words — it is a simple truth with real-world meaning.

The saber-rattling of recalcitrant men will one day be recognized for what it is: an assault on women no less lethal than a gun…or a virus. It is about time that everyone takes notice and, like Ms. Swain, courageously adds their name to the roster of progress.

I hope that the progression of understanding championed by the people of Wyoming in the 19th century, and those who march in support of gender equality today, will light the pathway incorporating the vital partnership both men and women play in creating a more just society.

It is also my hope that that light, the flame lighted by Swain and others, will become a beacon guiding us towards the wisdom, shared conversation, and sensitivity required for safe passage on the difficult road to peace.

Robert Bradley

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