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Woman Suffrage

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Curtis Justin Hillyer
Courtesy nevadawomensuffrage.weebly.com

Curtis Justin Hillyer

We are approaching the centennial of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Nevada has an additional reason to celebrate something that happened fifty years before that, when the state took a stand for suffrage. It’s a chance for us to talk about a significant speech in Nevada’s history, and errors in the record of Nevada’s history.

In the late 1860s, women’s rights advocate Laura DeForce Gordon spoke in several Nevada towns on behalf of suffrage. Legislators listened. At the 1869 session, they considered two amendments to the Nevada Constitution’s provision on voting. One would remove the restriction that only whites could vote. The other would remove the word “male.” A Storey County assemblyman, Curtis Hillyer, took the lead and delivered a thoughtful but also passionate speech on behalf of woman suffrage. He said, “The burden of argument is not on upon those who maintain the right of women to vote. I think that we are at liberty to rest until we have heard a statement from some gentleman of his reasons why they should not vote.”

He pointed out that women were citizens and owned property, and that people who were barely literate had the franchise but women who wrote books and taught school didn’t. He quoted the Declaration of Independence reference to government by the consent of the governed and said, ‘She is, always and everywhere, one of the governed; and yet, in direct opposition to the maxim which I have quoted, she is not allowed an opportunity either consent to or dissent from the laws by which she is governed. In the days of the Revolution this was called tyranny.”

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But he also said, “I advocate it less as a boon to woman than as a need to society and to man.” He laid out the problem of political corruption afficting society. He contended that “woman is by nature more moral, more conscientious than man. Woman is the great social purifier. Why should she not be the great political purifier?” He reminded his colleagues that women were largely responsible for educating children, and therefore should have a voice in education spending and legislation. As a wife, she should have something to say about marriage and divorce. He questioned claims that women lacked the intellect or physical stamina to be part of politics. And according to the legislative journal, “At the conclusion of his speech, Mr. Hillyer was greeted with round after round of applause.”

But for a century, most Nevada scholars believed Hillyer’s speech went nowhere and the legislature didn’t actually approve woman suffrage in 1869. In the early 1990s, longtime Nevada historian James Hulse and veteran women’s activist Jean Ford, a former legislator herself, published an article in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly outlining what really happened.

As it turned out, in 1869, the assembly barely passed the proposed amendment on women voting. The state senate passed it by a larger margin. But then it had to pass the next legislature. Hillyer didn’t seek reelection and most of those who voted for it in 1869 weren’t back at the capitol. The suffrage effort ended there, at least in the legislature, for a few years. Historians have now corrected that part of the record. Nevada corrected its course before that. And this year, a majority of the membership in the Nevada legislature is women. Curtis Hillyer would be pleased.

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