This year, Nevada and the rest of the country have been commemorating a turning point in our history. A century ago, in 1920, the 19th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution. Women gained the right to vote across the nation.
Nevada was in the odd position of being a leader AND a follower in that fight. In 1869, Wyoming Territory became the first to approve votes for women. Nevada was already a state, and almost joined Wyoming. That year, Curtis Hillyer, an assemblyman from Virginia City, introduced a state constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. It passed both the assembly and the senate. But it still needed to be approved in another legislative session. It failed in 1871.
After that, woman suffrage remained an issue, but gained little traction until the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. Reformers sought to clean up voting and government, among other things, and votes for women was a major movement. In 1911, the Nevada Equal Franchise Society was born under the leadership of Jeanne Elizabeth Weir, a history professor at the university in Reno and founding director of the Nevada Historical Society. The next year, the arrival of a new president stepped up these efforts. Anne Martin had been to England, learning from the women’s rights movement there. She and her allies organized groups in each Nevada county. They had support from the governor, Tasker Oddie, who considered himself progressive. They brought in speakers like social reformers Jane Addams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
But they also faced a roadblock: George Wingfield. He owned many of the state’s leading mines and banks. He opposed woman suffrage and threatened to leave Nevada if the measure they put on the ballot in 1914 passed. Wingfield had help not only from political allies, but from some women who opposed suffrage.
He didn’t reckon with Martin, Bird Wilson, Felice Cohn, Sadie Hurst, and Delphine Squires, and other suffragists. They figured that casino and bar owners opposed enfranchising women and would pressure their employees to vote against the vote. Many believed that women were likely to support moral reform and, in the Progressive Era, that meant shutting down gambling and drinking. Martin and her friends targeted rural voters who wouldn’t be so easily pressured. They were right. Nevada approved the vote in 1914.
But that didn’t mean this right was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. That would require further action. It took several attempts to pass Congress before being approved on June 4, 1919. Then it went to the states. In Nevada, Governor Emmet Boyle called a special session of the legislature to meet in February 1920. When they gathered, one woman was serving there: Assemblywoman Sadie Hurst of Washoe County, elected in 1918. The speaker asked her to preside that day, and it passed with one dissenting vote. Then she asked that suffrage leaders be allowed to speak, and they did. The state senate joined in voting for it. On February 7, Governor Emmet Boyle signed off on it. He used two gold pens. One went to Carrie Chapman Catt, the national suffrage leader, and the other to the Nevada Historical Society to be preserved. And when the state legislature meets in 2021, more than half of the members will be women. Indeed, we’ve come a long way.