When Therese Jenkins, a young woman from Wisconsin, arrived in the Wyoming Territory in 1877, about to become a bride, women already had the right to vote in the territory. Jenkins happily availed herself of this right, becoming a civic leader and force in Republican politics. In 1892, Jenkins was the first woman to serve as a delegate to a Republican National Convention, where she participated in drafting the party’s platform. She would be called upon to defend her right to vote.
In 1869, Wyoming became the first U.S. Territory to grant women the right to vote. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony was ecstatic. “Wyoming is the first place on God’s green earth which could consistently claim to be the land of the free!” she declared. Other territories followed suit in rapid succession. Utah granted women the right to vote in 1870, Washington in 1883, and Montana in 1887. Colorado women gained the right to vote through a referendum in 1893.
However, the right was not yet sacrosanct. In 1889, when Wyoming was seeking statehood, it was felt by some that women’s suffrage might be an impediment. After all, the 19th Amendment, granting women in the U.S. the right to vote, would not be ratified for another thirty years. Delegates to Wyoming’s statehood convention entertained a resolution to end women’s suffrage.
This is when Theresa Jenkins made her mark on history. Knowing that Jenkins and her husband, James F. Jenkins, Cheyenne businessman and political insider, were fierce advocates of women’s suffrage, a delegate to the convention, newspaperman W. E. Chapin, rode to Jenkins’ store to alert him to what was happening. The couple’s daughter, Agnes Metcalf, recounts what happened next:
“So Dad went home for his noon meal and told my mother,” she recalled, “and he hitched up the horse and buggy and she made a door-to-door canvass of all of the prominent women of town to get down to that meeting that afternoon and use their influence to not let that resolution pass—not giving the women the right to vote. So, they all went, and the man who had introduced the resolution withdrew it because he didn’t want to face the opposition of all of the ladies of the town.”
In 1889, when Wyoming was seeking statehood, it was felt by some that women’s suffrage, granted in territorial days, might be an impediment.
Although it was Therese Jenkins who had mobilized the women, she didn’t quite make it to the convention. The buggy ride to rally supporters was rough, and Mrs. Jenkins went into labor. The baby was named Agnes Wyoming Jenkins. Wyoming was admitted to the Union, women’s suffrage and all, on July 10, 1890. Two weeks later, Therese Jenkins was prominently on stage for the celebration. She took the occasion to address the matter closest to her heart.
“Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty enlightening the world,” Jenkins noted on that historic day, “is fashioned in the form of a woman and placed upon a pedestal carved from the everlasting granite of the New England hills, but the women of Wyoming have been placed upon a firmer foundation and hold a more brilliant torch.”
Although she already had the right to vote, Therese Jenkins would become a leader in the national movement for women’s suffrage. A sketch of Jenkins in A Woman of the Century, a collection of biographies of prominent women, edited by suffragists Frances Willard and Mary Livermore, described Jenkins as “a thoroughly educated woman,” whose writings were “clear and forcible.” She was an in-demand orator who traveled extensively to promote voting rights for women.
When the 19th Amendment was being debated in state legislatures, Jenkins, at the urging of Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, asked the governor of Wyoming to call a special session of the legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment. He was glad to do so.
“Mrs. Jenkins,” Governor Robert Carey replied, “if for no other reason than that you have asked me to do this I would call this session, for I know that if you did not think it the right thing for me to do you would not have asked it. I am, however, very anxious to see this amendment ratified and will do all in my power to have this state one of the first to go on record along this line.” In January of 1920, Wyoming became the 27th state to vote to ratify the 19th Amendment. In August of the same year, Tennessee voted for ratification, becoming the 36th state to do so. Ratification required approval of 36 out of 48 states.
Giving women the right to vote had been regarded as a joke in some quarters.
Therese Jenkins was born in Lafayette County in Wisconsin in 1853, the daughter of a prominent pioneer family—her father “Badger Pete” Parkinson, was a decorated veteran of the Black Hawk War. At the age of 24, Therese left behind a job as a school teacher when she went to the Wyoming Territory to marry James Flood Jenkins, who would go on to become a wealthy merchant.
Cheyenne was a rough and ready railroad town that had grown up around a Union Pacific terminal that stopped there in 1867. According to local histories, Cheyenne was not unlike the Wild West as portrayed in westerns. Gambling and saloons were everywhere. Not surprisingly, Therese Jenkins was appalled by conditions in Cheyenne.
Jenkins “immediately became interested in anything of civic welfare, education, and social environment for the betterment of women and children,” her daughter, Agnes Wyoming Jenkins, would write. Jenkins helped establish and pay for a public reading room, which she hoped would prove an attractive alternative to the town’s many alluring saloons and dance halls. She was a charter member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a stalwart of Cheyenne’s First Presbyterian Church.
A popular speaker, she had a novel way of practicing a speech: she would go out into the outskirts of town and practice making a speech. James Jenkins and baby Agnes would wait nearby in a buggy. They would move farther from the orator, testing how Therese’s voice carried. She learned to address large audiences with clarity. Jenkins spoke without notes and it was said that she could be clearly understood from the distance of four blocks.
In 1889 Jenkins became embroiled in a fierce debate with Professor Edward Drinker Cope, a paleontologist who argued against women’s suffrage. Cope published an article in the Popular Science Monthly entitled “The Relation of the Sexes to Government.” Cope asserted that “being free from the disabilities imposed by maternity, the male could acquire a greater mastery over his environment than the female,” and that “women would be irresponsible voters, as they can not assist in the execution of the laws that they help make.”
When the 19th Amendment was being debated in state legislatures, Jenkins asked the governor of Wyoming to call a special session of the legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment.
Cope feared that women, if given the vote, would simply vote the way their husbands told them to (similar slurs were made against conservative women voters in the wake of the 2016 presidential election). Cope held similarly regressive and discredited views about race.
Jenkins was furious. She responded with an article in the same journal entitled “The Mental Force of Woman.” Jenkins not only argued for women’s mental capacity, but she believed that women’s suffrage would “raise politics out of its filthiness, corruption, and ignorance . . . and bring in the reign of purity, patriotism, and intelligence.”
She argued that women would not use the ballot to enhance their own importance, but to transform society. “I wish that women everywhere would study the one argument that can be brought against woman suffrage” she wrote. “It is this: Woman may reform man. He has shown us clearly that he will not reform himself. . . . But woman in asking for the ballot ought to say to man[:] We will make better use of it than you have. This is the ground on which we must demand the suffrage.”
The cause of women’s suffrage advanced earlier in several western territories than in the United States proper, possibly because the social strictures of the east were not as strong. The territories also needed to attract women. In Wyoming, for example, men outnumbered women six to one. Suffrage might bring more women into the territory.
Still, giving women the right to vote was regarded as a joke in some quarters. According to Harper’s Weekly, “Wyoming gave women the right to vote in much the same spirit that New York or Pennsylvania might vote to enfranchise angels or Martians if their legislatures had time for frivolous gaiety.”
William Bright, the legislator who introduced the original bill in the 1860s for women’s suffrage in the Wyoming Territory’s legislature, did not have entirely pure motives. Bright appears to have been at least partially motivated by the hope that women would counterbalance newly-enfranchised former slaves. A Democrat, Bright also hoped to embarrass the Republican governor, who, he assumed, would veto suffrage. Governor John Campbell, who had been appointed by Republican President Ulysses S. Grant, however, did no such thing. He signed the bill immediately. The first bill to grant women the right to vote read simply: “Every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this Territory, may at every election to beholden under the law thereof, cast her vote.”
Because of the 1869 law, ably defended by Jenkins and her army of women, Wyoming is the place where a woman cast the first documented legal vote in the United States. Louisa Swaine of Laramie cast this vote in 1870. In 1870, Governor John Campbell named Esther Hobart Morris as the first female Justice of the Peace in the U.S. Wyoming’s Nellie Taylor Ross, inaugurating the practice of widows running for their late husband’s offices, became the first female governor of a state in 1924.
“It all began in Wyoming,” was the headline of a 1973 article in American Heritage by Wyoming-native Lynne Cheney. Cheney recalled the early female office holders, but lamented that there were few contemporary female office holders in Wyoming. The Equality State, as Wyoming is known, ironically currently ranks low in the number of women serving in public office. However, Liz Cheney, Lynne Cheney’s daughter, was elected to the House of Representatives from Wyoming in 2017. Cheney is chairman of the House Republican Conference, the third woman to hold this powerful position.
Therese Jenkins helped preserve the right to vote in Wyoming but her influence is not limited to one state. Carrie Chapman Catt said that Jenkins, Esther Morris, and educator Grace Raymond Hebard, were the three women from Wyoming who had meant the most for the cause for women’s suffrage. She, according to A Woman of the Century, was a recognized power in Wyoming among those who are interested in purifying and elevating society, and in bringing about the absolute recognition of the equality of the sexes before the law.”
Therese Jenkins died February 28, 1936 and is buried next to her husband in Cheyenne’s Lakeview Cemetery. Therese Jenkins is not as well remembered as many American suffragists, but we can hope that she is given due recognition in 2020, both in her beloved state of Wyoming and by the nation at large.