A century and a half ago, Wyoming was still 20 years from statehood and the country had ended both slavery and the Civil War just five years before.
But in early September, history was quietly made in a local Laramie election when Louisa Swain cast a ballot. The 70-year-old mother of three was the first woman, anywhere in the United States, to vote legally.
“That particular day, in Laramie, 191 other women followed Louisa’s way to the polls,” said Weldon Tuck, founder and executive director of the Louisa Swain Foundation.
Exactly 150 years to the day since Swain’s vote, the foundation that bears her name is planning to commemorate the historic event with a ceremony on the spot where it happened — not far from the Wyoming Women’s History House, which is run by the foundation.
The ceremony is planning a reenactment, and will host speeches by both former Representative Cynthia Lummis and Diana Enzi, the wife of current U.S. Senator Mike Enzi.
“Following the 1 p.m. program, the Wyoming Women’s History House will be open the remainder of the afternoon for tours,” Tuck said. “We’ve had to close the house all summer because of COVID so it literally will be the only day it’s open this summer.”
He added safety precautions will also be in place.
“We do encourage people to wear masks,” Tuck said. “Our seating in the plaza will be correctly arranged and there will be standing room if necessary.”
The ceremony Sunday will be the culmination of a cross-country tour that began the last day of August, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
A tractor trailer truck tour made its way across the nation, stopping in several cities along the way, including Cheyenne on Friday, where it was greeted by Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and Gov. Mark Gordon.
The tour, sponsored by the Wyoming Office of Tourism and the American Trucking Association in honor of the historic anniversary, was made possible by four female drivers who drove the truck bearing Louisa Swain’s image from D.C. to Baltimore through Columbus, Ohio, and Denver and several cities in between.
According to the Louisa Swain Foundation’s website, the nation’s first woman to legally cast a ballot was born in Virginia in the year 1800 and raised a Quaker.
On Sept. 6, 1870 — exactly 150 years ago this Sunday — Swain cast a ballot in Laramie’s municipal election. Nobody knows who she voted for on that historic day.
Less than a year before, in December of 1869, Territorial Governor John Campbell signed into law a measure granting suffrage to women 21 years or older. The act also afforded other political and economic rights to women, such as eligibility to hold an elected office and the ability to own property.
According to the foundation’s website, the event was covered boisterously by the Laramie Daily Sentinel, a town newspaper that predated the Laramie Boomerang.
“It is comforting to note that our first woman voter was really a lady … of the highest social standing in the community, universally beloved and respected,” the Sentinel coverage reads. “The scene was in the highest degree interesting and impressive. There was just too much good sense in our community for any jeers or sneers to be seen on such an occasion.”
Being the first place in the United States to grant women suffrage helped earn Wyoming its later title of the “Equality State” — although modern events, such as the Black 14 incident and the murder of Matthew Shepard have complicated the notion of the state’s — and Laramie’s — commitment to equality.
Women’s suffrage was not granted nationwide until 1920 — 50 years after Swain’s historic vote and long after her death — with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Louisa Swain Day began in 2008 when the U.S. Congress passed a resolution recognizing the day.