Episode 6: Why Is Wyoming Called the Equality State?

In this episode, Ruby Hanson and Erica Unger examine two aspects of equality in Wyoming. Erica Unger, a ten-year-old from Douglas, Wyoming starts this episode with an interview with Christina Bird. Erica asks questions about suffrage in Wyoming in the 19th Century and about Nellie Tayloe Ross. Ross was the first woman governor of Wyoming and the United States. Ruby Hanson an eight-year-old from Cody, Wyoming gives us a different look at equality in Wyoming interviewing James Byrd of Cheyenne. Byrd is the son of the first black woman elected to the Wyoming State Legislature, Harriet Elizabeth Byrd. In this interview Hanson and Byrd discuss Harriet “Liz” Byrd’s early struggles against racism and her desire to make a difference not only by teaching, but ensuring Martin Luther King Jr. Day was recognized in Wyoming. 

Erica Unger

My name is Erica and I am 10 years old. I live in Douglas, Wy with my Mom, my Dad, and my younger sister. I was born on March 25, 2010 in Cheyenne, Wy. I have lived in Douglas for 2 years. I love horses, swimming, and dancing. My favorite activities are dance, girl scouts, swimming and camping. My favorite subject in school is Math. I love to travel around the state and see the beautiful things about Wyoming. My family travels a lot during the summer. My favorite color is purple. I love living in Wyoming because it is so beautiful here.

Christina Bird

Christina Bird has spent over twenty years in the museum field and has been with Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites, and Trails since 2010.  She currently serves as District Manager, overseeing the Southeast District, which includes the Quebec 01 Missile Alert Facility, the Wyoming Historic Governors’ Mansion, the Wyoming Territorial Prison, and Curt Gowdy State Park.  Her passion is educating on the history of Wyoming and the West.    

Ruby Hanson

Ruby is eight years old and lives in Cody, Wyoming with her parents and little sister. She loves to draw, read, and ride horses. She recently caught her first fish. This is her first podcast ever! 

James Byrd

James was born and raised in Cheyenne, a 4th generation Wyomingite. He represented District 44 in Wyoming’s House of Representatives from 2009-2018, a seat his mother, Harriett E. Byrd (Rhone) held from 1980 until her election to the Wyoming Senate in 1988. James is a graduate of Cheyenne’s Central High School and the University of Wyoming.

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Transcript

ERICA UNGER: Why was it important for women to vote in Wyoming?

RUBY HANSON: Why is Harriet Elizabeth Byrd important to the history of Wyoming?

ERICA and RUBY: Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast!

NARRATOR: Where kids ask the questions. This is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

ERICA: Hi, my name is Erica, and I’m from Douglas Wyoming. Today we are going to explore the topic of equality in Wyoming. I am interested in equality for women because my teacher started talking about it and I wanted to learn more. Today, I am speaking with Christina Bird. She is the District Manager for Wyoming State Parks, and former superintendent of the Historic Governor’s Mansion in Cheyenne. I am speaking with Christina because she’s an expert on women’s suffrage in Wyoming and she also knows a lot about Nellie Tayloe Ross, who was the first woman governor of Wyoming and also the whole United States. I am interested in how women started voting in Wyoming. That’s where my interview with Christina starts.

CHRISTINA BIRD: There was an article that came out right at the end of the 1890s, that for me kind of sums it up. It says, “because it is fair and right that those who must obey the laws should have a voice in making them.” And I really like that as an argument for why women should be allowed to vote.

ERICA:  Who decided that women should be able to vote?

CHRISTINA: You know, women around the world have been voting long before Wyoming women had the right to vote, or women across the United States with the 19th amendment. But in Wyoming specifically, Erica, there were several reasons why people supported the idea, and not all of them were because they thought it was the right thing to do, which is kind of unfortunate. A lot of people thought it would bring notoriety or publicity to the Territory of Wyoming. And a lot of people wanted to bring more women to the territory because we (women) were underrepresented. Some thought it would give them a political advantage. 

ERICA: How did they think women having equal rights would impact the future? 

CHRISTINA: Well, in the Wyoming Territory, I think, having more people in the territory where women were especially needed, would get us closer to having enough population to try to become a state. And a lot of the democrats here in Wyoming, thought that it would get them a little bit more political power to become a stronger political party in Wyoming. And of course, you know, having some publicity for the territory of Wyoming was an awesome thing to have. So Wyoming really had some good ideas of what it might do and how it would impact the future of the territory.

ERICA: What kind of jobs in Wyoming did women typically have in the 1920s?

CHRISTINA: That is an excellent question. And women held down all sorts of jobs: teachers, factory workers, nurses, telegraph operators, bookkeepers, waitresses, store clerks, and even local politics. By the 1920s, women were working all sorts of different jobs. There were a few jobs, though, that weren’t yet held by women in the 1920s. And one of them, of course, was governor of a state.

ERICA: Why did Nellie Tayloe Ross decide to run for governor?

Bain News Service, Publisher. Gov. Nellie T. Ross
[Between and Ca. 1920] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2014709682/>.

CHRISTINA: There were a few factors that went into that decision. And she had a really sad story. Do you know the story of Nellie Taylor Ross a little bit? Well, Nellie had a sad story. Nellie was very, very much in love. She and her husband got married in the early 1900s. They loved each other a lot, and so when he decided to run for politics and become Governor of the State of Wyoming, she helped him. She helped him a lot. She helped write his speeches, she campaigned with him, they traveled together. They had four kids together. So he became governor in the early 1920s, and two years into his political term, he died from complications of appendicitis, which is terrible. It was really, really sudden. And so a couple of the factors that influenced why she ran for governor was, number one, she really needed a job. Her husband had just passed away, she had bills to pay, she had some debts to pay off. And number two, she had a family to support, she still had three kids. One of them was 12, when her husband passed away, and so she had to work to support her family. And this is one of the ways that she knew how to do it! She had been writing some of those political speeches, and doing some campaigning. But I gotta tell you, Erica, more than anything, I think Mrs. Ross was really ambitious. I think she wanted to be governor of the State of Wyoming, and continue to do some of the great things that she and her husband had started.

ERICA: How did she think this would impact the women of today?

CHRISTINA: You know, that’s a really good question. A lot of women early on, did things for very specific reasons, thinking it would impact how women were viewed and how it would impact women in the future. I think Nellie was doing what people had been doing forever. She wanted to be seen for what she could do. She liked working in politics, and being a public servant. And she didn’t do it so that she could prove to everybody that just because she was a woman, she could do it. I think she did it because she was good at it. And she knew how to do it. She was so good at it that she went on to national politics, and became the first female to run the United States Mint. And she did that for a really, really long time.

ERICA: What kinds of difficulties did Ms. Ross face when running?

CHRISTINA: Well, you know, that’s a great question, because she had lots of difficulties. The first time that she ran for governor in 1924, she really put herself out on a limb. She had just lost her husband. Her brother and best friend didn’t think that it was a good idea for her to do this. It had never been done before. And boy, she was in a little bit of a financial pickle. She had other jobs that were offered to her, so she really put herself out on the limb by going out and trying to be elected as the first female governor. She just didn’t know if it was going to work. She really put her neck on the line. And I think she did that because she really wanted to be governor. The odds were kind of stacked against her, and I think she really put herself out there to make it happen. 

ERICA: That’s all the questions I have for you.

CHRISTINA: Well, awesome.

ERICA: After talking to my expert, these two words describe the woman in Wyoming: strong and confident. It was important for women to vote because they thought that since they had to obey the laws, they should have a voice. They wanted to be considered equal to men. Women got tired of not having a voice and not being heard on important issues that involved them. They wanted to be able to work to take care of their families.

RUBY: Hi, my name is Ruby Hanson, and I’m in second grade at Sunset Elementary in Cody, Wyoming. I got interested in this topic, because when I was four, my mother took me to vote and it made me wonder about why a woman hasn’t been President. And so I wondered about equality and women in Wyoming.

I’m talking with Mr. James Byrd, who served in the Wyoming House of Representatives from 2009 to 2019. While James Byrd is an important man, I wanted to talk to him about his mother, Harriet Elizabeth Byrd. She was an influential African American woman in Wyoming. She was born Cheyenne in 1926 and died in 2015 and was the first African American to serve in the Wyoming legislature, Liz Byrd faced difficulties in her life. I am interested in her work recognizing Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday as a Wyoming state holiday. It took close to 10 years, and I was wondering why it took so long. This is where I pick up my conversation with Mr. Byrd.

Portrait of Liz Byrd as a Wyoming State Senator, 1988. Box 10, Harriett Elizabeth Byrd Family papers. American Heritage Center

JAMES BYRD: Well, just like anything in the legislature, there’s people who just don’t like change. There’s people who to be honest with you, there’s a lot of people who did not like the idea of celebrating a minority as a holiday in Wyoming. And so those people did everything they could to help defeat the bill over and over and over. And that’s why it took her nine attempts, or 10 years to get the bill signed into law. She would bring it and then they would vote it down. And then she would have to wait until the very next year to reintroduce the bill, and then go through all of that again. And then finally, the legislature found out that she wasn’t going away, or the idea was not going away. And so she would convince a couple more people every time just by working hard at it, until she finally got enough votes.

RUBY: Wow. Was there one particular person that would not give in?

JAMES: Let’s just say the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time was not a fan of this bill. In fact, when she brought it to him to tell him that she was going to introduce it, he promptly threw it in the trash, and told her he didn’t want to see the bill back ever again, which only made my mother a little bit angry. And she went down and had another one written up and brought it right back. But eventually, my mother got enough people who she convinced that it was a good idea, and was in the best interest of the State of Wyoming, because our nickname is the Equality State, that’s our state motto. So she went after them on all angles there, and she was a pretty persuasive lady.

RUBY: What did she teach her students about equality in Wyoming?

JAMES:  Well, she taught them basically the Wyoming history, starting with the state motto being the Equality State, and that goes all the way back to the women’s suffrage and Esther Hobart Morris and the other ladies who back then decided that they’d had enough with men running the government because they weren’t doing that good a job. They still aren’t doing that good a job, in my opinion, but we do the best we can. So keeping that in mind, she grew up in this state, and so she really loved the whole idea and the concept about the State of Wyoming. So it was easy for her.

RUBY: Wow. Why was she so connected to teaching? What made her want to be a teacher?

JAMES: Well, one of the things that her grandmother taught her and her mom and dad, and she taught me and I’ve taught my kids is–  Education is the most important tool and the most important thing that you can do as a young person. With a good education, it opens up all sorts of opportunities. As my aunt used to tell me, you really can be anything and anybody you want to be, if you want to apply yourself and go through the educational process, and learn those things.

RUBY: I wondered if your mom, when she was younger ever thought of having another career? When she was a kid was there another thing that she also really wanted to be?

Ruby standing under the Liz Byrd banner on the University of Wyoming campus.

JAMES: Well, not really because from early on, she told me that she was always focused on being a teacher, and helping people. I guess, if she wasn’t a teacher, she probably would have been a nurse or a doctor or something like that. Someone that helps people. But she really did like teaching and she liked the fact that she could help people learn things that they could make themselves better, get better jobs and things like that. And so from the time she was a kid, and like I said, my whole family was very, very interested, and pushed us to get as much education as we can.

RUBY: What did she feel like when she wasn’t accepted at the University of Wyoming? Was she mad? Or did she get it?

JAMES: Well, considering at the time, she being a black woman in Wyoming, and there’s a lot of issues that were surrounding that, that did play a big role in her not being accepted to Wyoming. She could have done like a lot of other people do and just get mad, and they throw their hands up, and they just quit. But my mother was definitely not like that. If you had ever met her, you would know that you when you tell her, “No”, and you don’t have a good reason for telling her “No,” that only makes her that much more motivated to go ahead. That’s why she left the state of Wyoming because she went and applied to a few colleges, and she got accepted to West Virginia College.

RUBY: Which is pretty lucky, I would think.

JAMES: Then, yes, because there weren’t a lot of people who were going to college. And my grandfather had a really good job at the railroad so he could help her out with college.

RUBY: So she was not mad that she wasn’t accepted at the University of Wyoming. She thought, “Okay, this isn’t too unexpected. This is the way the world is right now.”

JAMES: Yes. And let me tell you that she didn’t hold a grudge because you know, when she went to get her master’s degree, you know where she got that at?

RUBY: Where?

JAMES: The University of Wyoming.

RUBY: That’s cool. I’d think that she might have had to stay there for her masters but she didn’t, I guess.

JAMES: Well, she got her master’s degree much later after she started working. But, you know, if you want to hold a grudge or anything like that, it would have been very easy not to go to the University of Wyoming. But that’s one of her favorite schools. She really did love the University of Wyoming. She used to go over there and help mentor and teach the education students to help them get along and help them become better teachers. So she didn’t hold a grudge.

RUBY: That’s really good that she didn’t. Well, that’s all my questions I have. Thank you for coming here today.

JAMES: Well, thank you.

RUBY: After I spoke with Mr. Byrd, I would describe Harriet Elizabeth Byrd as brave and persistent. She experienced discrimination in Wyoming, but still fought for education and equality in the state. She is important because she made us remember equality, and Martin Luther King Jr. He is important because he knew people shouldn’t be treated differently because of the color of their skin.

RUBY and ERICA: And that’s why we ask why.

NARRATOR: Thanks for listening to this episode of Kids Ask Why. If you want to learn more about the Equality State and suffrage in Wyoming, check out our website kidsaskwhy.org where we have lots of different resources. Now, what are some things you could do in your community to be more inclusive? Share your answers with us on Facebook at the Kids Ask Why podcast page, or on Twitter at Center of the West. Tune in next week.

NARRATOR 2: This podcast is produced by Emily Buckles, Gretchen Henrich, Megan Smith, and Kirsten Arnold. Our executive producer is Kamila Kudelska. Levi Meyer and Anna Rader are our digital consultants. Kids Ask Why is a production of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Wyoming Public Media.

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