A Living Example of Equal Rights in Wyoming

Times Staff Writer

"I've got an armlock on this place," Thyra Thomson, 68, said as she stood in front of Wyoming's 1888 gold-domed Capitol. She laughed. But she meant it.

In her 23rd year as secretary of state, Thomson has served in the state House longer than any other elected official in Wyoming's history.

Secretary of state in Wyoming is the second highest political office, equivalent to lieutenant governor. There is no lieutenant governor here.

If the governor dies, resigns or is removed from office, the secretary of state becomes the new governor. When the governor leaves the state, the secretary of state is the acting governor.

"Only a few states have ever had a woman governor or lieutenant governor. I am the first woman elected secretary of state in Wyoming," Thomson said.

But she quickly added that having a woman in her office is to be expected of Wyoming, a state with a population of only 460,000. "You know Wyoming has been the leading state in America in granting equal rights to women," she said.

At the entrance to the Wyoming Capitol is a statue of Esther Hobart Morris--"Mother of Women's Suffrage in Wyoming." A plaque on the statue reads:

"Esther Hobart Morris. Proponent of the legislative act which on December 10, 1869 gave distinction to the Territory of Wyoming as the first government in the world to grant women equal rights."

There were only 9,000 people in the newly formed territory in 1869; of that number 7,000 were over 21 with 6,000 of them men and 1,000 women. Historical records show that the men in the territorial legislature voted for the proposal overwhelmingly, hoping it would attract women.

"We say to the ladies: Come on out to Wyoming," was the lead on a story in a Cheyenne newspaper the day the legislation was passed. Susan B. Anthony, reacting to the historic legislation, called Wyoming "the first place on God's green earth which can claim to be the land of the free."

Ever since, Wyoming has been known as the Equality State. The Great Seal of Wyoming shows a woman with a banner bearing the words, "Equal Rights," symbolizing the political status women have always enjoyed in Wyoming.

Two months after the equal rights legislation was passed, Esther Hobart Morris was named the first woman ever to become a justice of the peace in the United States.

That same year Louisa Swain of Laramie became the first woman in America to vote in an election. The first women in the nation ever to serve on juries were impaneled in 1870 in Wyoming.

In 1894, Estelle Reel Meyer became the first woman in this country elected to state office when she successfully ran for state superintendent of public instruction. In 1910 Wyoming had its first woman legislator, the next year its first woman mayor.

And, in 1924 Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman in history elected governor of a state. She later became the first woman to be appointed director of the United States Mint (1933-1953).

Why didn't Thomson run for governor? "I'll tell you the reason," she replied, clapping her hands, during an interview in her office.

"I was married to a beautiful man, a much-decorated World War II hero, Keith Thomson. He was 34 when he was elected to Congress and served as Wyoming's representative for three terms. In November, 1960, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and died a month later of a heart attack at the age of 41, before ever taking his Senate seat."

She said she sold her Washington home, returned to Wyoming with her three sons, where she sold the ranch she and her husband owned near Cody, Wyo., and then bought a home in Cheyenne to settle down and raise her children. In 1962, she ran for Wyoming's secretary of state, won and has been reelected five times to the four-year terms.

"Well, in 1966 when it came time to run for reelection, there were three important spots open without incumbents--governor, Wyoming's only seat in the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senate seat," Thomson continued. "I was hot property. People urged me to take my choice and run for one of the three openings. I had plenty of backers."

She said she thought and thought and thought about what to do. "I was really torn. What an opportunity. But I remembered an old saying about the stock market: 'If you can't sleep nights worrying about the market, sell down to sleep level.'

"You know, I was at sleep level. I love my job as secretary of state. My kids were doing wonderfully. I began to think like a mama. I wanted to do the best for my three sons. I thought I'd better stay where I was. If we packed up and moved to Washington, it would disrupt their lives again. To be governor would mean depriving them of a great deal of attention they deserved.

"So, I settled in as secretary of state."

Wyoming voters are an independent lot. They have reelected Ed Herschler, their present governor and a Democrat, to a third term. The state's two U.S. senators, Malcolm Wallop and Alan K. Simpson, and U.S. Representative Dick Cheny, are Republicans.

While voters have elected Herschler with big margins to the state House, they continue to reelect Thyra Thomson, a Republican, as their secretary of state. Wyoming residents vote more for the individual than the party candidate.

Thomson did not bother joining the National Assn. of Lieutenant Governors her first 10 years in office. One day she received a letter from then-Lt. Gov. George Nye of Oklahoma.

Nye wrote to Thomson to inform her that she was the only holdout among the 50 lieutenant governors in the nation. "I sent him the $100 dues and have been an active member ever since," she recalled. Six years ago she hosted a lieutenant governors' meeting at Jackson, Wyo.

"There are a lot of bright and upcoming lieutenant governors in the present crop," she said. "I'm a maverick. Politicians usually don't stay in this job too long. They are either on their way up or on their way out."

Only the lieutenant governor of Washington, John Cherberg, 74, has held the second-highest political job in state government longer than Thomson.

Cherberg, former football coach at the University of Washington, has been lieutenant governor since 1957. He, like Thomson, has had no interest in running for a higher political position.

Second-Highest Official

In 41 states the second-highest official is called lieutenant governor. In five states the title is president of the senate and in four states, secretary of state.

Only five lieutenant governors (or equivalents) have served more than 10 years. As Thomson indicated, it isn't a job that a politician generally keeps more than a term or two.

Thomson told of sitting around a big oval table with all the lieutenant governors at one of their annual meetings. "They were discussing the role of the lieutenant governor in state government. We went around the table alphabetically by state.

"Most were saying there should be statutory duties spelled out for the job. Many told how their governors tossed them a bone now and then, and how governors were uneasy about their lieutenant governors, fearing them as a potential threat," recalled Thomson.

She said when they got to "W," she told them in Wyoming the secretary of state had the ideal situation. "The duties of the office are spelled out. The Constitution provides that the secretary of state is independent of the governor. I am not elected on his coattails, not elected in tandem as so many lieutenant governors are.

A Busy Administrator

"What I can do for the state of Wyoming is limited by my own energy," she said. "I administer all the securities, that's my biggie. I have registered $127 billion worth of securities. I administer stocks, bonds, mutual funds. I certify all corporations. I administer elections, administer laws pertaining to limited partnerships and so much more."

As the interview ended, Secretary of State Thomson walked past a giant stuffed bison outside her office door. "You know the bison is on our Wyoming flag," she said, adding:

"I've got to run. I'm entertaining the Swedish consul general at my house. I'm cooking dinner for him, a typical Wyoming dinner, leg of lamb cooked in a bag with soy sauce and vermouth, twice-stuffed baked potato, fresh asparagus and homemade lemon pie."

She said goodby and drove off in her car, the one with the Wyoming 2 license plates. The governor has Wyoming 1.

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