The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liz Cheney for president? Wyoming once led the way in women’s rights.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) speaks Aug. 16 at a primary election gathering in Jackson, Wyo. Cheney lost to Republican opponent Harriet Hageman in the primary. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

At a House Jan. 6 committee hearing in July, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) noted that much of the hearings’ most compelling testimony came from young women speaking out against older and more powerful men.

They “are an inspiration to American women and to American girls,” Cheney said.

Cheney’s criticism of former president Donald Trump has been unsparing. Now, after losing the Republican primary in her reelection campaign, she is considering a run for president herself.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is now looking far beyond her Republican primary loss and possibly toward the White House. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Liz Cheney’s political life is likely to be ending — and just beginning

From a historical perspective, it would make a lot of sense for the first female president to hail from Wyoming. In 1869, Wyoming was the first jurisdiction in the modern world to give all women the right to vote, regardless of marital or property-owning status — 50 years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

A territory at the time, Wyoming retained these rights for women when it became a state in 1890. Women in Wyoming territory also had the right to hold public office and own property separately from husbands, and female teachers were guaranteed the same pay as their male counterparts.

There are a few reasons that the region — now one of the most conservative places in the country — was once so progressive. The first non-Indigenous settlers flooded into the territory for gold rushes and mining jobs. They were almost entirely single men and not particularly interested in law and order or in building a community or a working government; they hoped to strike it rich and move back to their home states.

By allowing women to vote, the territorial legislature hoped to attract families, which might become permanently resident, and single women, who might marry some of the men.

Some Democrats who voted for the bill also argued that allowing White women to vote would blunt the impact of the votes of Black and Asian men, to whom the appointed Republican governor had promised suffrage.

A few months after the vote, in 1870, Esther Morris, the 55-year-old wife of a saloonkeeper in Wyoming’s South Pass City, was appointed justice of the peace, becoming the first woman to hold a judicial office in modern history. She ran an efficient court and, according to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, was a “terror to all rogues.” A statue of Morris, a gift from Wyoming, stands in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall collection.

Despite Wyoming’s crucial role in women’s history, Cheney voted against the creation of a national women’s history museum in February 2020 — and was the only congresswoman to do so. At the time, a spokesman for Cheney told The Washington Post that Cheney “believes women’s accomplishments deserve to be honored in an equal manner, alongside those of men, as part of our great national story.”

Only one congresswoman voted against a bill to create a women’s history museum.

Cheney struck a different tone at the close of the July hearing. Wearing a suffragist-white blazer, Cheney noted that the hearing room was the same where, in 1918, a committee convened “to debate whether women should be granted the right to vote.”

“This room is full of history,” she said, “and we on this committee know we have a solemn obligation not to idly squander what so many Americans have fought and died for.”

Then she quoted Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to become prime minister of Britain.