National News

Overlooked No More: She Followed a Trail to Wyoming. Then She Blazed One.

Posted May 24, 2018 12:27 a.m. EDT

In December 1869, about 50 years before Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, the territory of Wyoming granted women there the right to vote and hold public office. It was a chapter in the women’s suffrage movement that The New York Times noted in a single sentence.

Wyoming did not stop there, though. Within a few months, the territory had sworn in the country’s first female jurors and appointed its first female justice of the peace.

Her name was Esther Morris.

Born Esther Hobart McQuigg on Aug. 8, 1814, in Tioga County, New York, she was orphaned as a child and then apprenticed to a seamstress. In 1841, she married Artemus Slack, a civil engineer. A year later, they had a son, Edward.

When Slack died just three years into the marriage, she moved to Peru, Illinois, where she married John Morris, a local merchant. With Morris, she had twin boys, Robert and Edward. In 1869, the couple, the twins and Esther Morris’ son from her first marriage moved to South Pass City, a gold-rush boom town in Wyoming Territory, which had been established the previous year.

Some accounts suggest that Morris spent her first months in South Pass City championing the cause of women’s voting rights and pushing for a bill establishing those rights in the territorial legislature, which first convened in October 1869. Some historians, however, say that this version of events overstates Morris’ role in the women’s suffrage movement in Wyoming’s early days.

But what isn’t disputed is that in February 1870, Morris was appointed justice of the peace, the first woman to hold the position. She was 55 and had been living in South Pass City for less than a year.

Her job wasn’t easy. Although South Pass City’s population peaked at about 2,000 in 1869, the town was home to two breweries, a dozen saloons and several brothels. During Morris’ 8 1/2 months in office, she proved to be an efficient public servant. By her own reckoning, she tried about 30 civil actions, and only one of her rulings was appealed (and a higher court affirmed that one).

Several contemporary news outlets found the idea of a female judge somewhat amusing, or so their reports on Morris’ tenure would suggest. In April 1870, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, recounted her first day in court, focusing primarily on what she wore (“a calico gown, worsted breakfast-shawl, green ribbons in her hair, and a green neck-tie”). A few months later, the same publication called Morris “the terror of all rogues” and said she offered “infinite delight to all lovers of peace and virtue.”

Morris seemed to understand the significance of her role. In 1871, after she finished her term, she wrote a letter to the prominent suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker that was read at a national suffrage convention in Washington and printed in The Laramie Daily Sentinel in Wyoming.

“Circumstances have transpired to make my position as a justice of the peace a test of woman’s ability to hold public office,” Morris wrote. Her self-assessment? “I feel that my work has been satisfactory.”

In the letter, Morris described some of her responsibilities — assisting in picking juries, depositing a ballot, canvassing votes after an election — and said that “in performing all these duties I do not know as I have neglected my family any more than in ordinary shopping.”

When Wyoming became a state nearly two decades later, Morris, “honored and respected for her great ability and heroic womanhood,” was given a prominent role in the accompanying celebration, The Cheyenne Daily Sun reported. In July 1890 — by then she was retired at 75 — Morris presented Wyoming’s state flag to Gov. Francis E. Warren “on behalf of the women of Wyoming, and in grateful recognition of the high privilege of citizenship that has been conferred upon us.”

Morris was 87 when she died on April 2, 1902, in Cheyenne, where she was also buried. While her stint as a judge was a first for a woman, her name is mentioned only rarely in history books, alongside those of Jeannette Rankin (the first female member of Congress) or Sandra Day O’Connor (the first female Supreme Court justice) — women who might be considered beneficiaries of Morris’ “satisfactory” performance on the bench.

Wyoming has not forgotten her. In 1963, a statue of “Mother Morris” was erected in front of the state Capitol in Cheyenne — three years after one had been contributed to the National Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, where each state is allowed to place two statues.

One of just nine women represented in the collection in Washington, Morris is — as she was during her pioneer days in Wyoming — surrounded mostly by men.