- Woman Suffrage in the American West: Emma Ghent Curtis’s The Administratrix
The place of the American West in woman suffrage history is well known but poorly understood. Wyoming, “the Equality State,” was the first modern government to recognize woman suffrage, and the vast majority of states and territories granting women the right to vote before the Nineteenth Amendment were west of the Mississippi. Early-twentieth-century suffrage activists were quick to seize upon the rhetoric of the West as the seat of American freedom and harbinger of progress, but the only suffragist known to have written pro-suffrage novels set in the West, Emma Ghent Curtis, tells a far different story. In her 1889 cowboy novel The Administratrix, the Colorado suffragist depicts the cattle frontier as a deeply misogynist space in which women are voiceless and powerless. Her heroine, schoolteacher Mary Madnau, tries and fails to improve the rough morals and manners of the cowboys around her. Other women in the book fall prey to predatory men who seduce and then abandon them, leaving them to make their living as dance-hall girls or worse.
Curtis wrote her novel during the Colorado campaign for woman suffrage, which culminated in the referendum of 1893 granting Colorado women the right to vote in the territorial government’s elections. She was instrumental in that campaign, her name frequently appearing in local and national coverage of the Colorado suffrage movement. Yet the women in her novel wield very little actual social or political power. The most vocal woman suffragist in the novel is a mansplaining rancher who lectures his wife about how women must speak up for themselves but also dismisses her complaints about the sexual harassment she endures from the cowboys who work for him. When those same cowboys later lynch and murder her husband using trumped-up charges of cattle rustling, Mary disguises herself as a young cowboy called Mose and infiltrates the cowboy community in order to avenge her husband’s death. At a time when other woman suffrage novels were dramatizing the conversion of their male characters (who, after all, were the ones who would be voting for or against it) through the influence of a good woman, Curtis resolves her novel’s conflict in a scene of graphic gun violence in which Mary/Mose exacts revenge on her sexual harasser and her husband’s murderer: “[S]he dashed after him, firing shots [End Page 309] into his body from both the revolvers she held. He looked back over his shoulder as a ball entered his back, uttered a despairing cry, turned as if to return the fire, and fell face upward. . . . During this time the men had drawn their revolvers, and several shots had been fired at her, one of them entering her left arm. . . . ‘No man will take me alive,’ she said” (363).
The 1893 woman suffrage referendum in Colorado was successful, but likely not because Colorado men, like Curtis’s womanizing villain Stanley Lancaster, saw the error of their misogynist ways. It is more likely that racial motivations, such as increasing the population of white voters, played as significant a role in this campaign as they did in other western campaigns and indeed in the national movement. Nevertheless, The Administratrix has much to teach us about the western woman suffrage movement and western women’s history more generally—in particular the different priorities of western suffragists from the national organizations as well as the different cultural conditions in which western women lived. The view we get of woman suffrage in the West is a far cry from the myth of the West as early adopter of women’s liberation. Mary Madnau turns gunfighter after her womanly influence fails to affect the virulently misogynist culture around her, revealing a deeply entrenched rape culture and the intense and righteous female anger it engendered.