This would be his mother
Wyoming's first female judge, Esther Hobart Morris was ahead of her time
By RENA DELBRIDGE
At the time of her appointment as the nation’s first female Justice of the Peace, Esther Hobart Morris was 59 years old and determined to succeed as a professional, as a mother and as a wife.
Wyoming can claim many "firsts" for women, from the right to vote to the first female governor. And it all began with Esther Hobart Morris.
In what must have been a moment of great irony, Morris was appointed the nation’s first female justice of the peace in 1870 to fill the term of James W. Stillman, who resigned in protest after the Wyoming Territory passed an equality bill in December 1869.
Despite little formal education, Morris handled her South Pass City courtroom competently, proving that a woman could hold office and maintain her familial duties. Standing six feet tall, she ruled on 26 cases, not one of which was reversed on appeal.
"Her primary significance is as an extraordinary symbol of women’s rights," Dr. Phil Roberts, associate history professor at University of Wyoming, said. "Here was a generally uneducated woman that ably demonstrated she could carry out this important civic duty. It doesn’t seem very revolutionary now, but in the times, it was. She’s symbolically very powerful."
Rising to challenges born of necessity, her ability to transcend the stereotyped roles of women and serve as a model is a constant thread in her life.
Orphaned as a young girl, Morris was a successful businesswoman by her early 20s. Answering a calling to equality, she spoke out against slavery while standing up for women’s right to organize.
Widowed in 1845, she moved to Illinois to settle her late husband’s affairs, where she experienced the difficulties women encountered in property and legal matters. She married John Morris and in 1869 they moved west to South Pass City, opening a saloon to serve the booming gold town.
At the time, the burgeoning suffrage movement in the East was stalled as many men insisted that women would be unable to properly fulfill their societal domestic roles if granted equal rights. In contrast, frontier women in Wyoming were pulling their weight, working side-by-side their men.
In November 1869, William H. Bright, also of South Pass, introduced the suffrage measure to the territorial legislature. Signed into law by Gov. John A. Campbell in December, 1869, the bill made Wyoming famous as the Equality State.
Although credited in some accounts as the driving force behind the bill, Morris was likely simply a supporter, according to Roberts. Morris and Bright didn’t meet until after the historic legislation passed.
The new law paved the way for Morris’ February 14, 1870 appointment to Justice of the Peace. Although controversial in South Pass, historical documents record a steady stream of civil and criminal matters into her courtroom during an eight and one-half-month tenure.
As one of the first women put to the test, Morris "acquitted herself admirably," despite limited education and experience, Roberts said. "Had she failed as a judge, when do you think the next woman would have been appointed? How would the whole suffrage argument gone?"
Morris’ success proved wrong the naysayers who stubbornly insisted a woman could not manage equality without compromising her duties as a wife and mother.
Within a year of her judicial term, women sat on a Wyoming jury for the first time. Wyoming’s pioneering gains prompted noted activist Susan B. Anthony to call for Eastern women to migrate en mass to the Cowboy State.
Although typified as a suffrage leader, Morris preferred to let her actions on the bench speak for her, in pure Wyoming fashion, advocating in practice equal rights.
"She spent the rest of her life as a role model," Roberts said. "She was, in essence, saying, ‘Any woman could do this, as I’ve demonstrated’."
Morris was honored as a suffrage pioneer at Wyoming’s statehood celebration in 1890, and, at age 80, was a delegate to the national suffrage convention. In 1960, her contributions to the equal standing of women were immortalized by a bronze statue in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps less visible, but of even greater lasting value, was the example she set.
Aug. 8, 1814 Esther Hobart Morris born to Daniel and Charlotte Hobart in Tioga County, New York
1833 Attended a church meeting in New York where she spoke out for abolition and the right of women to gather
June 1869 Moved from Illinois to South Pass City, Wyoming with husband John Morris and family
Dec. 10, 1869 Council Bill 70, granting women the vote and other equal rights, signed into law by territorial Gov. John A. Campbell
Feb. 14, 1870 Appointed Justice of the Peace for South Pass City
Sept. 6, 1870 Was among eight women in South Pass City to exercise the newly granted right to vote
Dec. 6, 1870 Completed her term in office; does not seek re-election
Feb. 1872 Attended the American Woman Suffrage Association Convention in San Francisco
July 1876 Attended the National Suffrage Convention in Philadelphia
July 24, 1890 Was an honored guest at a banquet declaring Wyoming’s statehood
1895 Attended the National Republican Convention in Ohio as a Wyoming delegate
April 2, 1902 Died at age 87 in Cheyenne, Wyoming
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy Wyoming State Archives
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