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South Pass City, Wyo., as it looked in 1974. Though it later moved to Cheyenne, the territorial legislature met here in 1869 and became the first to affirm the inherent rights of women to vote and hold office. (Library of Congress)

‘Are Women Allowed in the Senate?’ An Interview With Wyoming Senator Affie Ellis

By Megan McClure | March 29, 2021 | State Legislatures News

Megan McClure, a research analyst with NCSL, sat down with Wyoming Senator Affie Ellis (R) while recording part of the podcast miniseries “Building Democracy: The Story of Legislatures.” She asked Ellis why it’s important for women to be in elective office and what made her decide to run.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to holding state legislative office?

I’m a Wyoming native, I grew up in Jackson Hole and I am Native American. My family is Navajo and came to the state in the mid-1950s. My dad is a welder and my mom worked in a dry cleaner. I was the first in my family to go to college and was always thankful to have opportunities. After I graduated from college, I worked for the late U.S. Senator Craig Thomas (R) in Washington, D.C. But as much as I loved my time in D.C., I loved the notion of going back to Wyoming. I was practicing law in 2016 and I took my oldest of three kids to watch the Wyoming Senate debate. My daughter, who was 8 years old at the time, didn’t see any women serving in the chamber, and she asked me, very innocently, if they let women be in the Senate. My heart sank when I heard her question, and it prompted a lot of thought and discussion. At the time, my mom was struggling with health issues, and I had just lost a dear childhood friend in a car accident. I think you start realizing how short life is. I remember talking to a friend of mine and I asking her advice and she said, “You know if you want to start shining a light on these issues that you see in your day-to-day life, we need women, particularly in Cheyenne, to step up and do that.”

Why do you think there are so few women in the Wyoming legislature?

It is, I think, more of a challenge with a citizen legislature to ask women, who may live seven or eight hours away from the Capitol, to make that kind of commitment. Wyoming has one of the worst percentages of female representation, but you know it’s one thing to encourage other women to run and a whole other thing to step up yourself. It certainly did turn my life on its head and was a huge adjustment for my family, but overall, I’m glad I did it. I started my first session in 2017.

What are some of the issues you’ve worked on that you feel passionate about?

Education. I want to make sure that not only my children, but children across Wyoming have the opportunity and what they need to get a quality education. In other areas, I’ve worked on rape kit reform. And this past session I was able to tackle the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. Being a Navajo person, it is important for me to advocate for some of those critical issues.

Why is diversity and representation of minorities in elective office so important?

I think there are a lot of people who want to see themselves reflected in a legislative chamber. And certainly, I hear a lot from women, and especially girls, that they’re happy to see another person that looks like them serving. I don’t want to disparage my male colleagues, they work really hard, they’re really knowledgeable and wonderful people. But I do think it’s critical for citizens to see themselves represented in city councils, legislatures, county commissions. Serving on the Education Committee, I heard from people who would come to testify and say, “You guys are all grandpas, you don’t know what’s happening in our schools.” My experience has been quite the contrary. I live, breathe and do everything for my children. And a lot of my perspective comes from talking to other parents on the playground, from sideline soccer conversations, having that firsthand knowledge helps me understand some of the things that they are seeing, what challenges they face.

Wyoming has a history in granting women political rights. Can you share some of that history?

In grade school I learned that Wyoming was called the Equality State because it was the first to grant women the right to vote, but only because they needed the population to become a state. This, we know now, isn’t true. At the time there was only a 1 to 6 ratio of women to men, so even if women were counted for purposes of statehood it wouldn’t have been enough. Also, we always hear that Wyoming was the first to “grant” women the vote. This is a great opportunity to say that the right to vote and hold office is an inherent right that states and the federal government had restricted. We should say Wyoming was the first state or territory to affirm or recognize those inherent rights. The right to vote was paired with the right to run for office, and I think that’s what made it so interesting in Wyoming. I think they wanted it to really mean something, to make a grand statement, so only three months later Esther Hobart Morris, who had no legal training, was tapped to fill a vacancy for the justice of the peace for South Pass City. She had been instrumental in the grassroots movement to pass the suffrage legislation. I think it was really a symbolic way to say: This isn’t just a moment or a movement to give women a little voice. I often joke that if I had a time machine, I would put Esther Hobart Morris on my list of people I’d like to meet and grab a cocktail with at a saloon in South Pass City. Though I’m sure it would have caused a scandal for a Native woman to be having a drink with her in the 1860s. 

Why is this history important for all women running for office today?

When Wyoming applied to be admitted to the Union, there were members of Congress who said, “We cannot let women have this right because anarchy will prevail. We can’t let Wyoming in unless they repeal this from their constitution.” Wyoming wrote back via telegram saying something to the effect of, “We would rather remain out of the Union 100 years than to come without our women.” I think that talking about Wyoming’s past will shine a light on remarkable people who made passage of the 19th Amendment so much less daunting, because you could look at Wyoming and say, “It’s worked there, this isn’t a failed experiment. Women are very competent and capable of voting and holding office.” It’s my honor and privilege to get to share some of their stories and stand on their shoulders.

The interview was shortened and edited for clarity. If you’d like to hear more about the role of Wyoming and other Western states and territories in women’s suffrage long before the passage of the 19th Amendment, listen to Episode 4 of “Building Democracy.”

Megan McClure is the co-host of the “Building Democracy” podcast series and a research analyst in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.

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