In this episode, Amelia travels across Wyoming to speak with Dr. Colleen Denney about the history of suffrage in Wyoming and Jessica Baker about women in Wyoming’s ski scene.
In this episode, we have two conversations—one with Professor Colleen Denney about the history of women’s suffrage in Wyoming along with the current unequal conditions there for women, and another with ski guide Jessica Baker about succeeding in the male-dominated field of guiding and extreme sports.
- How women got the right to vote in Wyoming 50 years before the 19th amendment [4:45 – 7:40]
- Becoming the first woman heli-ski guide [10:40 – 12:25]
- Advice on succeeding in a male-dominated profession [13:40 – 14:25]
- Read more from Jessica here and here
- Gender bias in the guiding world
- She Adventures
- Melanin Basecamp
- Dr. Denney’s book
Jessica Baker on Instagram
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Amelia: This is Fifty Feminist States a roadtripping, storytelling podcast visiting all fifty US states to interview feminist activists and artists about their work for gender justice.
I’m Amelia Hruby, and this week we’re in Wyoming.
Jessica: So I went to Alaska, but when I first went to, uh, to explore being a guide there, the owner said, “no way, not hiring any women. Women don’t belong here. Women aren’t strong enough, women just can’t do this job.” And I said, well, I’ll be your first woman that will.
Amelia: If you’re familiar with much US history, you’ll know that Wyoming has a long, feminist past.
In 1869, Wyoming was the first state to grant women suffrage. The following September, in September 1870, 69-year-old Louisa Swain was the first woman to cast a ballot under that law in her town of Laramie, Wyoming. This was fifty years before women were granted the right to vote by the 19th amendment in 1920.
In that same year of 1920, the three-hundred person town of Jackson, Wyoming elected the nation’s first all-women town council. A few years later, in 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected as Wyoming’s governor, becoming the nation’s first female governor. She served for two years and went on to become vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and director of the U.S. Mint. She was the first of seven woman to hold that position out of the 39 people who have in US history.
All of this history is meant to illustrate how Wyoming earned its nickname “The Equality State.” It’s also meant to be a stark contrast to the state of women’s political representation in Wyoming today.
In the mid-1980s, women held nearly a quarter of state legislative seats in Wyoming. But now, women hold only 11% of the legislative seats, making Wyoming the most male-dominated state legislature in the United States.
And while Jackson may have been the first town with an all-women leadership, it’s now reported to be the most unequal metropolitan area in the country with the top 1% of the population making 132 times the income of the bottom 99%. This is a far cry from local legend that says that the all-women town council would personally go around town to collect back taxes and fines.
Another startling statistic — as of 2016, Wyoming ranks 49th in the nation for the wage gap. This means women in Wyoming make only 69 cents for every dollar that men in Wyoming make. That’s ten cents less than the 2016 national average.
To learn more about Wyoming’s feminist history and present, I spoke with two Wyoming women that we’ll hear from in this episode. The first is Dr. Colleen Denney, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. She studies comparative histories of feminist activism in England, New Zealand, and the US, and she’ll share a bit more about the history of suffrage in Wyoming. The second person we’ll speak with today is Jessica Baker, a skiier and mountain guide who runs a company called Ski Divas in Jackson, Wyoming. She has a lot to say about the land of Wyoming and what it takes to succeed in a male-dominated profession.
But before we get there, we’ll hear from Dr. Denney first and begin by learning about the history of women’s rights movements when they began in mid-19th century England. This is Dr. Denney:
Colleen: The apocryphal story I’d like to think it’s true, is that three women sat down together to have the Garrett sisters and their friend Emily Davies in England, and Emily said, “I’m going to go take care of women’s education. I’m going to go start the school called Girton College at Cambridge.” Elizabeth Elizabeth Garrett is going to go attack the medical profession, which she did. She became the first woman doctor in England, and then they said Millie who was her little sister, Millie, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, right. You can go take care of women’s suffrage, so awesome. So there it is, right, those three things, and so, you know, we’ve got professionalism taken care of, women’s education, and women’s right to be citizens. Here are the three big umbrellas that really needed to be addressed.
Amelia: Here’s more now about suffrage in Wyoming specifically.
Colleen: I think there were some women who were strategically placed to talk to the right people and they were strong women who had been through it. Right. They’d been through. This is Esther Morris. She’d been married more than once. She’d had been a single mother. She, she saw what it was like to try and work with the legal system; this is an Illinois before she moved to Wyoming, and she was determined that someone was going to help women get to vote in Wyoming. Yeah there is the argument that they gave … there are several arguments about why they “gave” women the vote. Wyoming was still a territory. These were pioneer places where not much was going on and the governments were provisional. And so it was like there were not all these systems in place to, to like keep women out. So they were able to move forward pretty easily with getting the vote. And there was this, that wide open spaces thing. “We’re gonna make a difference. We’re this territory, and dammit, we’re gonna do this.” Everyone deserves a vote. Right? We’re all out here, we’re all doing this hard work, and they needed … The one argument that sticks with me is that they needed women to vote because they needed to become a state, right? This is one of the big arguments. Uh, it’s like, yeah, they needed more numbers and I believe that one, I think that one’s probably true.
Amelia: I want to recap that last argument Dr. Denney mentions here because it is one of the most common arguments for why Wyoming was the first state to pass women’s suffrage. As a fledgling territory, Wyoming needed more settlers to build the resources necessary to become a state. And in 1869, there were six adult men for every for every adult woman in the territory and even fewer children. So this argument says that Wyoming granted women suffrage, because they hoped that would draw more women to the territory raised their population as they applied for statehood. One of the other important things that Dr. Denney underscores here, is that that while Wyoming does have this history that we can call feminist, perhaps it was not driven by feminist motivations. There’s a quote from John Morris, the husband of Esther Morris, whom Dr. Denney mentioned earlier, that keeps standing out in my mind when I think of Wyoming’s suffrage history. He said “It is a fact that all great reforms take place, not where they are most needed, but in places where opposition is weakest.” I don’t know if this is necessarily a fact. But it does seem striking that perhaps in Wyoming, it wasn’t that suffrage was the most necessary or the most urgent issue, but rather that wyoming was the place that had the least opposition. When I think of it that way, it seems less surprising that Wyoming’s history has moved from these feminist origins to a pretty hostilely gendered present.
Colleen: Wyoming’s a challenge. I have raised both my kids here. I came here for the job. I’ve been here 28 years. I kind of have a love hate relationship with Wyoming. I love the landscape. I love to be able to breathe. When you get places like Wyoming where we are so isolated that there is a real sense of community that you have to depend on each other. Right? Um, you know, if you’ve read Laura Ingalls Wilder, you realize just how isolated you can be out on those plains and what some of those women’s lives were like. But um, I, I kinda just, yeah, it’s free. There’s a lot of freedom here. I feel like we’re not in trance. Like this whole pioneer spirit is still with us, right? In both good ways and bad ways, right? Um, but I, I think that’s a big piece of it.
Amelia: This connection to space in Wyoming is one that I heard about from everyone I spoke to there. This might have something to do with the fact that Wyoming is the tenth biggest state at almost 100,000 sq miles but it also has the smallest population of any state in the US. As a result, the population density of Wyoming is only 6 people per square mile — which is to say, people Might talk about space in Wyoming, because there is a lot of space. Professional skiier and mountain guide Jessica Baker also fell in love with Wyoming because of the space, particularly the mountainous terrain of western Wyoming. Now we’ll hear her talk about how her career started in Jackson:
Jessica: So I, I, uh, my bachelor of science was in geology and then I had a minor in arts, which is sort of a funny combination. But, uh, I came to Jackson, and I did get a job as a hydrologist to start, so I was still skiing of course. But, um, I really loved it. I enjoyed the work. I loved the intellectual side of it, but uh, just something in me just kept saying like, this is great, but this really isn’t like your real, real passion. So, um, so ultimately I moved more into the skiing side of it more full time, but uh, it was a bit of a, sort of like a hard thing to swallow. I’m like, really? Is that my profession? And is that okay? Like are people going to accept that as a real profession or am I just looked at with like, oh, she’s just playing, you know? But at this point I think have earned the respect is as a professional skier and guide. So it’s worked out that way.
Amelia: It’s hard to imagine that Jessica hasn’t earned this respect. She’s a medal-winning competitive skiier, a business owner, and a certified professional guide. She is also the first woman heli-ski guide for Alaska Rendezvous Ski Guides. For outdoor-sports-novices like myself who aren’t familiar with heli-skiing, it’s skiing where you take a helicopter to the top of wherever you plan to start skiing from. Just imagine replacing ski lifts and bunny slopes with helicopters and black diamonds. While you’re picturing that, hear Jessica share what it took for her to become the first woman heli-ski guide at this company:
Jessica: So I went to Alaska. I sought out Alaska rendezvous guides because it was a smaller sort of up and coming operation and they had a really neat base. I liked the community people there, but when I first went to, uh, to explore being a guide there, the owner said, “no way, not hiring any women. Women don’t belong here. Women aren’t strong enough, women just can’t do this job.” And I said, “well, I’ll be your first woman that will.” And, and in a way I was just, it was a glutton for punishment because it was a brutal process for two years. It was pretty painful. A lot of tears, a lot of questioning why I was doing what I was doing, but ultimately I broke through that barrier and uh, and became the first woman female guide for that, that operation. And I think it helped break a lot of barriers for, for not only that operation, but sort of on the paths. There were a couple other women that had worked in heli-skiing operations in that region before, but even one of them had still wasn’t working. So it was, it had come down to like two of us that were left and I had just gotten a position, so there just really weren’t that women, many women there and not, not a lot of women to turn to either. So that process was a bit painful and even still that history with the company, even though I still work for them, it sometimes bites at me a little bit, you know, like I, I have some defensiveness, um, in relation to that, that whole process still, even though I’m like one of the most senior guides and I have a very good position there, I just feel very defensive still because it took so much to get to that place. And I don’t think I could have done it if I didn’t have the impetus inside of myself to keep pushing through moments where I’m like questioning everything, of course.
Amelia: And what advice does she have for other women seeking to follow in her footsteps professionally?
Jessica: I think it’s changing, I really do. I think the culture is shifting. I don’t know how fast or quickly. Like I feel like I’ve sort of reached the other side of it, but I can see other women struggling to make their way into this profession. I mean, if you look at the AMGA is the like governing body to certified mountain guides in America. If you look at their enrollment, you know, they’re getting 10 to 20 percent at most per course or exam if that, and that’s not that high. So you know, there, there are many factors for that. Women want to have families and it’s not a very conducive a profession for that kind of thing. And um, it’s sort of a male-dominated world. Maybe it’s not that appealing to women to be like, “Oh, I’m going to go immerse myself with a bunch of men in the middle of nowhere in the mountains for how many days in a row and test myself with them.” You know, it can be daunting, intimidating and maybe not even that appealing. So I think we have a long way to go, but I think things are progressing. Like there are so many more financial opportunities for women like scholarships and sponsorships that, that help them move forward for their goals. But I would say, my advice is, you know, if you really believe in it, keep plugging away at it, don’t let people break down the confidence that you’ve built up for yourself, like know what’s yours and know what’s right for yourself inside and don’t let anyone else, um, uh, I guess don’t let anyone else weakened that confidence within you. And if you hold that, no matter what obstacle you come to, you’ll be able to push through it. And it takes a lot of work. I think you have to work hard for it. It takes time. There’s no easy way to get into the profession that I’m in, but at the same time, if you work hard and you stick with it and you dedicate yourself, you can do it no matter what.
Amelia: Jessica isn’t exaggerating the male-dominated terrain of her profession or it’s difficulty. According to the AMGA — that American Mountain Guide Association — only 131 Americans have become fully certified guides, and, as of early 2018, only 11 of those were women. And while she works within and against these barriers professionally, Jessica also instills this tenacity in clients of her company Ski Divas through which she takes women of diverse ski levels and backgrounds all over the world to ski on extreme terrain. This was one of the things that interested me most about JEssica’s career. The ways in which she was not only the first woman to become a heli-ski guide with her company or push through certain professional barriers, she also works to open the space to other women who may or may not have any aspirations to become professional skiers, but who deserve to see and ski these terrains as well.
Jessica: I called my business ski divas because I’m like, I want women to come and gain some attitude and like be spunky and like, you know, show their true side and, and then really break through their own barriers. I think women that are doing maybe like a women’s only ski camp for the first time sometimes start shy and a little bit reserved and I find by the end they’ve opened up quite a bit which is really exciting. And then for those that maybe have already already have a bit of confidence or, or just realize they do want to be in a supportive group of women, I find that they, they really, uh, you know, they really shine through. Like they, they really kind of come, come into their own and feel more expressive through the whole process. And, and you know, a lot of people work through their fears too. So it’s a, it’s, it’s sort of like an ebb and flow of like feeling really confident and then feeling lower and, and trying to work through something. And that’s really where, where I come in and this is just helping people work through either a fear or some kind of blockage in their mind or whatever it is. And, and, and people generally do come through. I’ve, I’ve noticed that, you know, the women that do go through my programs end up starting to look at my other programs more and more often because they’re like, wow, that was so inspiring or that really felt good to do that. I want to do another one, a new one, a different one.
Amelia: Jessica’s offered these ski programs in France, Argentina, Canada and the Arctic, but in the end, she always comes back to Wyoming where she’s now raising a family.
Jessica: The interesting thing about Wyoming is it really does have a lot of history, uh, in like women’s rights and women were able to vote here very early on. There was the first all women’s town council was here in Jackson, Wyoming. There’s all sorts of cool, strong women’s history in the state, whether people recognize it or not. I think in Jackson, it’s a very proud history. If you look at the news in Wyoming or if you just look at like a newspaper and Jackson, you see a lot of women in the news. There just is this like entrepreneurial leadership type of spirit that comes out of the women that, that are here. I’ve noticed it and even the women that ski here like so strong and so good, even the ones that are never known, you know, just, just, just some amazing athletes and a very, uh, ambitious women. So I do think there’s something to that. And obviously there is in the history of Wyoming as well, even though Wyoming’s a very conservative state. There’s, there’s something there and I think it’s, it’s still in Wyoming’s blood and it’s still happening. So that’s, that’s very good. It’s great to be raising two daughters in Wyoming. I like that.
Amelia: If you’re interested in learning more about skiing and guiding, Jessica has shared more information about her background, training, and expertise on the Outdoor Research blog which I’ll link to in the show notes. Outdoor Research also runs a program called She Adventures that provides various opportunities and scholarships to women hoping to find outdoor adventure. I’ll link to that in the show notes too.
I also want to provide a shout-out to a group I learned about recently that is working to get more people of color into adventure sports. They’re called Melanin Basecamp and you should definitely follow them on instagram at melanin (m-e-l-a-n-i-n) basecamp to fill your feed with more people of color diversifying the mostly-white and mostly-male outdoor adventure space.
And if you’re interested in the history of feminist activism in Wyoming and elsewhere, you can check out Dr. Denney’s new book that was just published with McFarland Press. It’s called Raise Your Banner High! The Visual Culture of Women’s Activism from 1860 to the Present. Her next project will explore the pioneer spirit of suffragettes in Wyoming and New Zealand.
Reflecting on these conversations, I’m struck by the ways in which pioneering women thrive even in oppressive conditions. Whether its early Wyoming suffragettes in mining towns or Jessica Baker on Wyoming’s mountainous slopes, Wyoming women face and conquer extreme conditions everyday. This is a true testament to their spirit, but it shouldn’t be used to mask the reality of the systemic injustice they face that results in the lack of legislative representation and increasingly high wage gaps cited earlier. Wyoming is a place that challenges us to celebrate its pioneering women while fighting against oppressive structural realities they face.
Next episode we’ll travel west again to Idaho. Until then, I’ll see you on the road!
Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Fifty Feminist States. You can follow Fifty Feminist States to stay updated on episodes and road trip happenings on Instagram at @fiftyfeministstates that’s @f-i-f-t-y-feministstates.
Our opening music is by Lobo Loco and this wonderfully sexist song that you’re listening to on our way out is a recording by Billy Murray from 1916.
Special thanks go out to Colleen and Jessica for meeting with me and sharing their insight into Wyoming’s feminist landscape. I also have to thank the hundred or so Kickstarter backers who made funding this season possible.
Until next time, wild ones! We’ll see you on the road.