At a recent meeting in the Wyoming Capitol, a delegation from Kenya and four Wyoming legislators found an unexpected connection.
The Honorable Naomi Namsi Shaban, a member of the Kenya National Assembly, was describing to the group how her country’s constitution requires that women hold at least one-third of seats in the Senate and the Assembly. The constitution was created just 10 years ago, and Shaban said they have not yet met the mandate for even the minimum number of women in all elected offices.
Wyoming Representative Jared Olsen (R) let the group know that his state was the first to grant women the right to vote and to run for elective office. And what’s more, they were gathered in the room where it happened: the recently restored Historic Supreme Court Room.
“We are sitting in the room where suffrage was debated ... and granted, the first government in the world to do so,” Olsen said. The historical connection on women’s rights was an unexpected bonus for the 14 Kenyans, who had come to Wyoming as part of four-day visit to NCSL to learn about all facets of state governments. The structures are so new in Kenya that this group wanted to learn “from the oldest democracy,” Shaban said. The group represents the Center for Parliamentary Studies and Training, which hopes to model its work after NCSL in terms of providing nonpartisan research and training opportunities to lawmakers to strengthen their “baby democracy,” Shaban said.
Learning From a Territorial Leader
When the Wyoming territory weighed the question of women’s suffrage in 1869, the issue was being debated across the country. Wyoming Senator Affie Ellis (R) told the Kenyan delegation the impetus stemmed in part from the fact that the territory had granted voting rights to Blacks, recently freed from slavery, which she said begged the question about granting the right to women (though Native American women would not obtain the right until 1924). In addition, she said, men outnumbered women 6 to 1, so territorial officials figured giving women the right to vote and hold office could entice more of them to come out West.
Wyoming boasts the first woman elected to a legislature and the first female justice of the peace, and it allowed women to serve on juries before any other state. In fact, when territorial leaders learned Congress was balking at its request for statehood in 1890 because of the rights it had granted to women, a legislator who would become governor sent this message to Washington by telegraph: “We will stay out of the Union 100 years rather than come in without our women.” Statehood was narrowly approved by Congress with women’s rights intact.
Despite Wyoming’s early history advancing women’s rights, women do not have parity with men today in terms of representation, composing less than one-fourth of the Legislature.
Ellis noted women “have the same right and opportunity but not a guarantee” like the one Kenya has included in its constitution.
The Historic Supreme Court Room in the Wyoming Capitol was reopened in July 2019 after extensive renovations. In 1888, the room was home to the Territorial Legislature, and from 1890 to 1937 to the Wyoming Supreme Court. (Wyoming Capitol Square Project)
Taking a Seat at the Table
In Kenya, the challenges for women seeking office can be dire. Reviews of elections so far note that women have faced physical assaults and sexual harassment in person and online and have lacked access to mandated funding for their election bids.
Kenyan officials are still working on rules to implement the constitutional mandate for female elected officials, and Shaban says it’s good the country is grappling with how to ensure women are represented in elective office.
Shaban said the requirement was added to the constitution that voters approved in 2010 “because we were not being elected. The women demanded it and the men agreed.
“You cannot have a democracy if women are not at the table,” Shaban said.
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.