Wyoming’s Estelle Reel:
The First Woman Elected to a Statewide Office in America
By Sarah R. Bohl
Toward the end of her successful term as Laramie County Superintendent of Schools, Estelle Reel traveled to Casper to attend the Wyoming Republican Party caucus. What transpired there was reported differently in various papers, but when all was said and done, Reel had accepted the party nomination as the Republican candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction for the election of 1894.
Reel’s campaign was hard-fought, but it paid off when Reel ended up receiving the largest number of votes a candidate in the state had ever seen. This was not the only notable result of the election, for upon winning Reel became the first woman in the United States to hold a statewide office. Though she did not know it at the time, the results of this election would put Reel on the fast track in the political arena.1
Themes that would become recurrent in both Reel’s private and public life began to develop during this time, such as Reel’s role as a beacon for the woman’s suffrage movement and her personal feelings of exhaustion and depression. However, despite the prejudice and other distractions Reel faced, she proved that a woman was not merely capable of juggling the multiple roles that came with holding public office, but also could do it with skill and success.
Though Reel would eventually receive the largest vote in state history in the election of 1894, her nomination for State Superintendent almost never happened. At the Republican caucus in Casper, both Reel and Therese Jenkins, another county superintendent, were being considered as nominees for State Superintendent. The party, which was trying to avoid a heavy southeastern bias, attempted to spread the nominees throughout the state. Knowing this, Laramie County resolved to heavily lobby for two positions, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. After reviewing the slate, the county decided their strongest candidates were those for auditor and treasurer, so Reel was left with few supporters.
As newspapers reported it, Reel decided to circumvent the problem by seeking support elsewhere to break the slate and push through her nomination. Whatever the inside politics actually were, Reel ended up as a nominee from Uinta County, even though she was from Cheyenne. The newspapers did not mention it, but Reel’s brother Heck owned a large ranch in Uinta County; whether this was significant or not is questionable since Heck was a strong Democrat. Regardless of how these events actually unfolded, the fact that Reel thus wheedled her way into the her nomination angered many people, and subverted the party goal of avoiding a heavy southeastern bias.2
Despite the controversy surrounding her nomination, Reel was determined to prove she was the right candidate for the job. Often described as having boundless energy and enthusiasm, Reel took immediately to the campaign trail against her opponents, Democrat Matthews and Populist Sarah Rollman. As a candidate for a statewide position, Reel was determined to visit all corners of the state despite the hardships that this incurred. Her vigorous campaign eventually paid off, but not for the reasons some newspapers would report.
Soon after her victory at the polls, Reel wrote a newspaper article titled “Campaign Impressions.” In it, Reel recounted the vast distances she covered in her campaign in traveling to all corners of the state, both “settled and unsettled.” As she stated, this was all done by railroad, stagecoach, and ranch wagon, and even by horseback.3 At one point Reel even descended into a mineshaft in Rock Springs to campaign among the miners, an intelligent move that garnered her many votes in her opponent Matthews’ hometown. One newspaper reported that Reel “stumped the state twice,” once riding 150 miles in a stagecoach to reach a small town. The article pointed out the peculiarities of electioneering in Wyoming, noting that in every town, there was first a campaign address, which was always followed with a ball. The paper also claimed that Reel admitted her tactic was to seek out the Democrats and dance attentively with them all evening.4
Speaking as a true politician, Reel said that her “mission” to meet as many Wyomingites as possible taught her “what a wonderfully energetic and intelligent population Wyoming possesses and how certain it is that our state is bound to take the lead in wealth and good citizenship.”5 Reel was impressed by the natural resources of the state, especially oil. Also, as a strong proponent of arid land acts, she believed in the great agricultural potential of the state if only water could be brought to the land, specifically advocating irrigation bills in the state legislature.6
One of the most important obstacles that Reel had to overcome in her campaign was that a woman could not fulfill the numerous duties of the office. Most people had little problem with a woman as state superintendent since women were already accepted as leaders in educational arenas; it was the other responsibilities the office entailed that concerned them.7
The Superintendent of Public Instruction in Wyoming had many duties prescribed by the Constitution in addition to the primary educational component. The holder of this office was one of five elected officers of the state, and as such was Secretary of the Board of Land Commissioners and Secretary of the Board of Charities and Reform. However, most men overlooked the fact that, despite all these responsibilities, the officeholder in actuality had very little power or influence. Though the State Constitution directed the legislature to define the duties of the office, this was never done, in effect leaving the superintendent with much responsibility but little or no authority in any of these roles.8
Perhaps the role that caused the most opposition from voters was the position of Secretary of the State Board of Land Commissioners, a job for which many felt a woman was unsuited.9 Fulfilling these duties were essential to the success of schools in the state since all funding was derived from land rentals or sales. Reel’s campaign brochure assured the public that “Reel has shown more than ordinary interest in public questions, especially those affecting our public lands,” and noted that she had been a delegate to the Trans-Mississippi Congress in San Francisco, where she spoke intelligently on the necessity of irrigation in the West as well as laws restricting speculators and reserving the land for homesteaders and ranchers. Reel also noted that, in her opinion, the best of the papers presented at the conference was delivered by a woman, Miss M.A. Hamm, an opinion she believed was shared by many since it was the only one printed in full in many newspapers. She also noted that she had heard some of the “ablest men in the West” discuss these issues and that, while they were complicated, any woman who studied them could understand them as well as any man.10 Reel favored the Carey Land Act, saying that the state had potential for growth if it could only find the capital needed to get the immense water resources to the land that needed it, and get people to the state once it was irrigated. 11
Many people were still not convinced. The editor of the Newcastle Democrat felt that putting someone with no experience in land transactions was irresponsible, saying that if a woman were elected to the office it “might as well remain vacant.”12
Reel’s standard campaign speech was simple and brief; she said it would be “egotistical” of her to try to “enlighten” the crowd on issues of tariffs or free silver, two major political issues of the day, and instead she had come “to meet you in a social way and to get acquainted.” She then outlined the duties of the office as set forth in the State Constitution and noted her experience as county superintendent.13 In her speeches, promotional circulars, and newspaper advertisements, after outlining the responsibilities of the state superintendent, Reel repeatedly made the point that “any intelligent woman can perform these duties.”14 The speech’s brevity and content indicates that Reel understood her audience and what she needed to do in order to gain votes.
Though equal suffrage had existed in Wyoming since territorial times, this did not mean that all the men (or women) of the state felt comfortable with electing a woman to public office. One of the greatest fears of both sexes was the masculinization of women, a transformation to which many felt suffragettes were particularly susceptible because of their desire to participate in the man’s world of politics and public life. By first convincing her audience that she was apolitical, and then presenting herself simply as making a social call, Reel’s feminine identity was preserved; she appeared less threatening and above party politics to the men, and as a friend to the women.
Reel depended on campaign brochures to reach voters around the state. One noted that “she is particularly well fitted for the State Superintendency… [she] has always taken a deep interest in everything pertaining to education and has kept in the front rank in the advanced ideas upon educational matters of the present day…” The brochure also stated that Reel was “one of the most popular candidates in the State, having been elected County Superintendent by two of the finest majorities ever given.” This brochure included an article by the Cheyenne Tribune praising Reel: “Her ability to successfully perform the duties of State Superintendent cannot be questioned. In administrative capacity, knowledge of educational matters, and attention to details, Miss Reel has shown superior abilities.”
The state Republican committee insisted that “the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is one which should be filled by a woman. Educational work is peculiarly that of a woman,” since 95 percent of teachers and all but one of the county superintendents were women.15
Reel received numerous endorsements from media around the state. 16 The Rock Springs Miner reported that Reel “is one of the best educated and most brilliant women in the state, equal to every duty that will be required of her in her official capacity and it behooves every man and woman in the state to vote for her.”17 The Saratoga Sun informed readers that Reel “can think and act for a dozen ordinary men. She would make a most admirable state superintendent.”18 The Sheridan Journal happily reported that “There is nothing of the ‘strong mined [sic] cranky woman’ about her. On the other hand she is intelligent, vivacious, and lady-like in deportment. She is a lady of refinement and eminently qualified to fill the position which she is seeking.”19
Not all newspapers in the state supported Reel; the Laramie Boomerang criticized people who were putting so much emphasis on her charm and her dancing at political balls. The Boomerang reporter noted that “if the contest of votes is dancing vs. dignified, scholarly bearing, [Matthews] will certainly win when the leading educational office of Wyoming is concerned.”20 The Carbon County Journal mentioned Reel’s position on the “land question” and her support of Carey’s land bill, making its position clear by stating, “It will be seen from Miss Reel’s attitude and her official position, should she unfortunately be elected, that she would be as plastic as putty in the hands of the Cheyenne ring. The only safe thing is to defeat her with the rest of the gang ticket.”21 The Journal was not the only newspaper concerned with Reel’s susceptibility to party influence; the Wyoming Bee also stated “She is the tool, pure and simple, of the Cheyenne gang, and as such secured the nomination over the head of Mrs. Therese Jenkins…”22
Rumors about Reel’s campaign also circulated around the state. One rumor held that she had agreed to marry her opponent, A. J. Matthews, if he won the race, a proposition she said was ridiculous since Matthews was already married. Perhaps the most persistent story, which followed Reel for years to come, was one stating that she had sent “perfumed letters” bearing her picture to all the “lonely cowboys” in the state, so that they rode over 100 miles to vote for her and “[waved] six-shooters in the faces of those who voted against [her].”23 According to one report, Reel’s picture was “preserved with care and is now a prominent feature in the decorations of hundreds of cabins…”24 Though these rumors were false, chauvinism was prominent among both sexes, and they continued to plague Reel throughout her political career.
Much of the press’s criticism of Reel during her campaign was harsh and biting, some of it even calling into question her moral character. In a letter to the editor of the Carbon County Journal, an anonymous source (who was later speculated to be Governor Osborne, a Democrat), asked “Will someone please state who is acting as Miss Reel’s chaperone, and, if she has one, whether it is a male or female?” The letter stated that Reel was traveling over the state chaperoneless with the five male statewide candidates, of course insinuating that Reel’s morality was being compromised.25 The Newcastle Democrat also questioned her character, noting that the state superintendent “directs and moulds the education of our children. Now let me ask you mothers and fathers who have seen Miss Reel, or who have heard of her, how would you like your daughters to take pattern after her and have her as a pattern to follow?”26
Despite the criticisms and personal attacks, Reel continued to campaign among all demographics. As a final thought in her campaign brochure, the state Republican committee encouraged voters that “Miss Reel should poll the full vote of the intelligent Republican party and receive also the suffrages of the most liberal and discriminating Democrats.”27 Apparently those receiving this brochure took the admonition to heart. When the ballots were counted, Reel had won by a handy plurality; in fact, Reel received the largest number of votes of any state candidate and carried every county in the state, even Johnson County where every other Republican candidate lost.28
Unfortunately, even after her election, rumors perpetuated during her campaign continued to mar her accomplishment. Anti-suffrage newspapers continued to report that Reel had only won because she circulated pictures of herself to all the “young, lonely cowboys” in the state. Reel attempted to set the record straight, responding to one eastern newspaperman who asked about these allegations that “the editor of whom you speak has been misled by a wild-West story…In common with other candidates on both state tickets my picture was printed in state newspapers, on campaign literature, etc., but it had no more perceptible effect on the voters than the picture of the other candidates.”29 Still, this story would follow her for the rest of her life and continue to tarnish her political career.
Some of the major problems Reel faced during her term in office were awaiting her when she arrived. Most prominent among these were the need for a standardized curriculum, the debate over whether the government should provide free textbooks, and the issuing of teaching certificates. Of course, people from all across the country also wrote to Reel asking for a woman’s perspective on many lesser issues as well.
One of Reel’s main goals while in office was creating a standardized curriculum that could be implemented throughout the state, especially in the poor rural areas, so that students from these schools would be able to merge with urban students if they wished to pursue higher education. Reel often expressed a particular interest in methods for improving country schools. In an interview, Reel told the St. Louis Democrat and Journal that the only way to improve rural schools was to improve the quality of teachers, and increase funding so that rural schools could purchase the same supplies and equipment as urban schools; if this were done, Reel believed, rural students would surpass students in city schools.30 Reel therefore wrote to rural teachers throughout the state asking for suggestions on what curriculum would be useful in systematizing teaching with a minimum of training.31 She combined these suggestions with her own ideas, publishing the Outline Course of Study for Wyoming Public Schools in 1897. This pamphlet was so popular that Reel and her publisher soon exhausted all their copies, but Reel could not have any more printed due to the lack of appropriations for her office.32
In her introduction to the course of study, Reel assured the teachers of Wyoming that she intended the course of study to serve as a guideline at first, though she hoped it would eventually be adopted in its entirety. Reel advocated arranging schools by grade and only teaching one subject at a time.
Also, keeping in mind the tenuous situation over textbooks, Reel arranged the course of study so that it could be utilized without reference to textbooks. Reel urged teachers to cultivate in their students “self-control, concentration, endurance, application, appreciation, insight, receptiveness and responsiveness,” for she believed these traits were much more important than memorization of specific facts or trivia. As Reel says, “facts are means, not ends…it is what they suggest, make possible, inspire, that has value.”33
Teacher certification was a serious problem in that time. Provisions for issuing certificates had been in place since 1873, but not until 1886 were the first requirements made as to the content of the exams.34 However, teacher examinations were by no means standardized in terms of how they were conducted or graded, or what subjects could be included. Interestingly, the law did require that county superintendents must be satisfied that the candidate was of good moral character in order to receive a certificate; Reel described one case where a certificate was annulled once the moral character of one teacher was determined to be “bad.”35 Reel received numerous inquiries concerning teaching certificates, and in each one she had the same reply: Wyoming laws did not provide for statewide issuance of certificates; each candidate had to pass examinations given by county superintendents in the county where they were applying before they were allowed to teach.36 County certificates were only valid for one year, and only in the county in which it was issued. They had to be renewed yearly by retaking the exam, and there was no appeal process for rejected exams.37 Though Reel lobbied for a change in this system, she again was disappointed at her lack of results. No major alterations were made until 1899 when certificates began to be divided into four classes, allowing for statewide certificates to be issued as well as standardization of county superintendent exams.38
Much of Reel’s correspondence concerning educational matters was written either in response to job seekers in other states or to recommend Wyoming teachers for positions in other states. Reel responded to most job inquiries by noting that the supply of teachers was greatly in excess of demand, and suggesting that the inquiring individual put in his/her resume with county superintendents. Reel repeatedly mentioned the low wages paid to educators in Wyoming and the resultant lack of exceptional teachers willing to come west.39
Reel was unwilling to recommend friends for positions in Cheyenne for several reasons; one was that she had an ongoing feud with a member of the Cheyenne School Board, Professor Churchill. Churchill had angered many in the educational community by refusing to follow the law requiring renewal of teaching certificates though still continuing to teach. In response to one request for a recommendation, Reel explained to Alice Higgins of Illinois that, “my influence with the school board here is very slight as the members who manage affairs and the City Superintendent have been and are politically opposed to me and would keep out rather than help any friends of mine who should apply for places.”40 Also, Reel often pointed many of these applicants elsewhere; as she advised Higgins, “If you should decide to come west I think you could do better in Portland, Oregon, than any other place in the west I know of at the present time. I spent a week there last summer and found the conditions, work, wages and expenses, better for teachers than any place I have ever been.”41
One of the most important educational issues during Reel’s tenure was a debate that had been raging since territorial days over whether the state should provide free textbooks. Both the territorial superintendent and governor in 1888 recommended that funds from the leasing of state school lands be earmarked for textbooks, and in that year a law was enacted providing for uniformity of textbooks for an investigative five-year period. When this law expired in 1893, nothing was done to renew it, though Superintendent S. T. Farwell did suggest books as a basis for study.42 Two years later, when Gov. W. A. Richards made his first address to the third legislative assembly, he asked for a free textbook law, citing precedents in other states. Unfortunately no new laws concerning textbooks were passed until 1899, the year after Reel left office.43 Though Reel was not able to effect the change herself, she believed in the good of uniform textbooks. Dozens of textbook publishers sent her numerous copies of textbooks in an attempt to get her to recommend them for use in schools. Even though Reel could not mandate their use, she still wrote reviews of them for the publishing companies. 44
Wyoming schools were also lacking quality school libraries. Katharine Sharp of the Armour Institute in Chicago wrote to ask Reel about library administration, funding, and selection in the state. Reel replied that there was no organization or authorization in the state for libraries.45 Reel often complained about the poor state of school libraries, noting that some schools did not even have the rudiments of one, especially those in rural areas. She advocated building libraries in every school in the state, suggesting 84 books to form the basis of every school library (many of which were mentioned in her course of study), though she had no authority or funding to enforce this plan.46
An issue that caused Reel numerous headaches was the legislatively required biannual fiscal reports. Each county was required to send in an account of their expenses each year. Due to the poor quality of many clerks, these reports often had to be changed and amended several times. For almost every county, Reel was forced to return the original submitted report at least once because of discrepancies, both large and small.47
Conversely, Reel had her own problems getting funding from the legislature. Wyoming was in the midst of an economic downturn in the 1890s and one of the last areas considered for funding was education. In a letter to Mrs. Jennings in February 1895, Reel despondently wrote, “The prospects are that my contingent fund will be almost all taken away from me as the politicians seem determined to make my office of as little importance as possible.”48
Reel lobbied legislative members for much-needed reforms in educational laws, though because of other more pressing matters, the state legislature often neglected to consider these issues. As Reel noted, school legislation was often left until the very last, by which time the legislature was so rushed with work they had no time to consider educational bills.49
Even when legislation was introduced, it was often not to the benefit of the teachers. In 1897 House Bill 13 was presented as a measure to raise the salaries of county superintendents, but the same bill proposed that they then be forced to pay all their expenses, which would lead to a pay decrease.50
Despite all the problems Reel faced, she was able to make some progress in some areas. A big problem with the educational laws was the lack of regulations concerning school attendance.Attendance was particularly a problem in rural areas where school sessions themselves were intermittent and based on seasons or harvests.51 Children were required by law to attend school from the ages of six to eighteen for a time equivalent to three years, though the timing of this was never clearly defined.52 Still, enforcement of compulsory attendance improved during Reel’s term; in 1893 the average number of days school was in session was 89.2; in 1898, the average reached a high of more than 100 days.63
Another major change that was initiated during Reel’s term in office was the growth of secondary schools, a reflection of the nationwide trend as the country switched from agriculture to industry, necessitating new kinds of training. In his address to the third legislative assembly, Governor Richards recommended a law authorizing the development of secondary schools in larger towns for older students to obtain mechanical training.54 Growth was slow but significant. In 1894 only two high schools existed in the state; by the end of 1895 that number had jumped to five.55
Land Board and Politics
Though Reel faced much skepticism during her campaign over whether she was capable of performing the duties pertaining to land questions, she soon proved that these concerns were unfounded. The duties of the State Superintendent in regard to the Land Board were essential. As historian Terrence Fromong pointed out, the amount of money available for schools “depends upon the efficiency with which (and the rate per acre at which) the State Board of Control keeps the unsold school sections leased, and the efficiency with which the money in the Permanent School Fund is kept invested.” Income from the permanent school fund continued to increase during Reel’s tenure, amounting to a sum of “considerable proportions.”56
The Wyoming Constitution provided for two school funds: the permanent school fund and the common school fund. The permanent school fund received money from two sources, proceeds from the sale of school lands and 5 percent of the proceeds from the sale of all government lands in the state. The common school fund received its money from interest paid on the permanent school fund as well as rentals of school land.57
The original land grant for Wyoming public schools was three million acres. In 1897, during the middle of Reel’s term, Congress granted Wyoming permission to select more than 300,000 additional acres in lieu of school sections located in federally protected areas. The Public Land Commission had located and selected these “indemnity lands” by 1898, which likely played no small part in Reel’s success in increasing school revenues.
Reel had her own ideas on how to increase income from school lands. A biography written by Reel’s friend Cora Beach stated that Reel made a “thorough study of the land leasing system” which allowed Reel to make changes that led to unprecedented success. As Beach noted, Reel’s handling of the system led to an increase in revenues from hundreds to thousands of dollars collected from these lands within months of her taking office.58 In 1895 the legislature directed that this money be distributed to the counties on the basis of enrollment as reported by each county superintendent, and this practice was continued throughout Reel’s term.59
In a letter written in January 1896 to W. H. Wolfard of Saratoga, Wyoming, Reel indicated that school land could be rented annually for five percent of their appraised value, and that not less than a legal subdivision could be leased except inside city limits.60 Reel proposed relaxing the conditions for leasing state-owned lands that were being used for open range. She felt that this would not only cause the land to be utilized in such a way that it would make a profit for the state (that would of course be funneled to the schools), but that it also would be valued more by stockmen and ranchers. Reel also believed that if the state showed initiative by promoting the use of state lands, the government might turn over federal lands to the state. In her view this would transform Wyoming from one of the poorest to one of the richest states in the nation.61
During her campaign she had taken notice of the state’s lands. Her “strongest and most lasting impressions” were that the state’s “latent” resources needed to be developed so that Wyoming could be transformed into the “rich and prosperous state she deserves to be instead of the struggling commonwealth she now is.” Reel promoted irrigating the “fertile land” throughout the state by utilizing the Green, North Platte, and Big Horn river systems. In her view, the lack of railroads in the state was not a reasonable impediment to its agricultural development, citing the agricultural prosperity of the Star Valley. “There is no state in the union in which the opportunities are better than in Wyoming for a profitable combination of farming, stock-raising and mining,” she wrote. It could not be done by private initiative; success depended upon legislative support. If the state could achieve agricultural success, the development of other resources would be rapid, especially industrial activities.62
She favored irrigation legislation such as the Carey Act and the Desert Land Act, and opposed “corruption” in land claims. Her views pulled her into the Republican split in the state between those who followed Senator F. E. Warren’s leadership and those who followed ex-Senator Joseph M. Carey. Following the 1894 election, Carey tried to gain reelection to the U. S. Senate but the legislature, influenced by Warren, dumped him in favor of an Evanston Republican—with Warren in the other Senate seat. It began the long-lasting Carey-Warren feud that influenced Wyoming politics for the next quarter century.
Warren forces continued to find fault with Carey’s activities while the Carey forces reciprocated. Land was one battleground issue. As an article in the Casper Derrick reported, Carey had applied for a large tract of government land to be allotted to the state between Casper and Glenrock and had begun to fence it off. When the five-member state land board, of which Reel was secretary, found out about this, they prevented the granting of his application. According to Warren proponents, Carey stormed down to Cheyenne to rant before the board, where the Derrick reported, he was told the rejection of the application “was purely political and done to hold him down politically.”63
As part of the Republican apparatus put together by Warren, Reel showed no support for Carey. According to press accounts, however, the land issue was the reason. The Derrick reported that upon hearing the reason for the board’s action, Carey raved some more. This supposedly caused Reel to become disgusted with his actions and drop her formerly “astute” friendship with him. In fact, the Derrick reported that Reel afterward had choice words to speak about Carey, calling him the author of the “land grab law” among other things. This put her solidly in the “Warren camp” and set the stage for future political rewards.64
Reel’s ordinary land duties brought her notice in the newspapers. When Reel brought in $370 from a land sale she conducted on the courthouse steps in Cheyenne, it was the first time on record, according to an article from June 1895, titled “Miss Reel as Auctioneer,” that a woman officiated as a public auctioneer. As the article noted, “It has often been said that this was one of the things a woman could not do, but Miss Reel proved not only that a woman could, but did it in as expeditious and thorough a manner as any man could have done.”65
Even after she had been in office for some time, her auctioneering still drew attention. In an auction of school lands, an article in the Cheyenne Tribune, April 16, 1897, noted that Reel “cried the bids so sweetly that lots of fellows who got to thinking about it afterward felt real sorry that they didn’t wink the prices away higher.”66
Throughout her term, Reel continued to complain of exhaustion and frustration with the demands of her job. In a letter to a friend in Sheridan, written almost immediately after she took office, Reel told her: “The work of the campaign, of the inauguration, and of a new position, have almost prostrated me and I am very anxiously looking forward to the time when I can take a vacation be it ever so brief.”67 Even into April 1895, Reel complained, “I have been working almost day and night ever since inauguration day.”68 She was to have little relief from these laments during her tenure as superintendent.
It does not seem unusual that Reel would suffer from depression, considering the strains put upon her by her office and her lack of association with women. In a letter to a friend named “Billy” written in the late spring of her first year in office, Reel complained that “Cheyenne is awfully dull, socially and in a business way. You can congratulate yourself that you are living in a place where there is at least life and excitement every day of the year.” A letter to another friend written in June 1895 expressed similar feelings of boredom, especially since school was out for the term: “Cheyenne is very dull since all the teachers have gone away…There are no men to make it interesting. I look forward to a very dull summer, as I don’t expect to get away for a vacation.”69
In her letter to “Billy,” Reel also complained about “endless meetings of Land boards, dreary sittings of the State Board of Charities and Reform, wearisome visits to the Insane Asylums, Hospitals, Penitentiaries, etc.” These duties were time-consuming enough, but they were not the end of her responsibilities, for as she says, “now to crown it all I am expected to travel through Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, and Michigan to look at similar institutions in these states. And all the time, day after day there are letters by the dozen and by the score to answer.”70 Because she had just one secretary working with her in the office, the task of answering this correspondence fell to Reel herself.
Some of the few personal letters included in her correspondence records indicate that Reel was suffering from exhaustion for much of her term. She often complained of illness in her letters, ranging from continuing troubles with her eyesight to a severe attack of peritonitis early in her term. At one point she was even under doctor’s orders to rest. Frequently she wrote of her desperate longing for a vacation. At one point, Reel was forced to abandon plans for an extended vacation when the only secretary in her office became deathly ill. She sorrowfully wrote to a friend in Chicago, Hobart Martin, that her trunk had been packed for three weeks in anticipation of the trip, and she could not bear to unpack it. “Seriously, Hobart,” Reel wrote, “I am very tired of the kind of life I lead, but it is my bread. I’ve not had much butter.”71
Reel also expressed her frustration to her friend Gertrude , county superintendent in Saratoga. “I wish we could all go out and join your sister in California. The Legislature is upon us. Just think, 40 days of constant worry and annoyance…”72 In a later letter to Huntington, Reel responded to her complaints over trouble in straightening out the district’s finances by saying “I am very sorry that you are troubled so much but you know that I have ‘gone gray’ in this kind of business.”73
Reel’s public duties took precedence from her private life. It was the end of May before Reel found time to thank her friend Zoe Grigsby of Pittsfield, Illinois, (Reel’s hometown) for a Christmas gift she had received. Reel apologized for not visiting even though she had been in Chicago the month before on business of the Board of Charities and Reform: “I am so busy all the time, that I never have a moment for private affairs.”74
Much of her political support came from the fact that she was not married. Many voters believed that, with no family life, her public career would not be hindered and, apparently, she shared this view. This did not mean that Reel was content with this aspect of her life, however. Scattered among her scrapbooks are love poems, romantic stories, articles on skin care and beauty techniques, and many references to marriage. Some of her correspondence reveals that she was interested in marriage. In a revealing postscript to a letter to her former political opponent A. J. Matthews, Reel wrote: “If you know of any eligible bachelors, widowers, ‘or most any old thing,’ please keep us on your list, as we are a candidate for matrimony on the anxious seat.” While this may have been a reference to the rumors circulating during her campaign that she planned on marrying Matthews depending on the election results, it nevertheless shows that the subject of marriage was on her mind. A later letter to Matthews, which unfortunately is partly illegible, brings up the subject again, jokingly referring to the “matrimonial bureau” and noting that she believed she was “an impossible case.”75
A Magnet for Suffragettes
Throughout her term as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Reel was a focal point for the women’s suffrage movement. Though it was an unavoidable position, it seems that Reel was reluctant in this role, and was even annoyed at the attention she received as the one of the most prominent women in public service. In a letter to a friend, she expressed her frustration: “Besides the ordinary business letters about which, of course, there can be no complaint, it seems to me that every crank in the country writes to get my opinion on Woman Suffrage, Life Insurance, Higher Education, or some like subject.”76 However, in her public correspondence she cordially answered all questions that arrived from around the country concerning the consequences and benefits of women’s suffrage.
Her reluctance as a mouthpiece for the women’s movement does not mean that Reel was uninterested in the topic of woman’s equality. For instance, Reel wrote to Mrs. Thomas Orchard of Ogden, Utah, asking for her opinion of the practicality of woman’s suffrage there: “Would it be an aid to the women of the state as it is to us in Wyoming? Would it have a tendency to elevate politics? Would it help Utah or retard its growth?”77 These questions suggest that Reel was privately unsure of the benefits of universal suffrage, though the newspaper articles she wrote on the topic are emphatically supportive of it.
Many of the people who wrote to Reel were curious about the history of women’s suffrage in the state. One such writer was Mrs. Eugenie Cleophas from Cleo, Wyoming.78 Reel answered all of Cleophas’ questions, saying that she believed women’s suffrage made the parties more careful in choosing their candidates, while the presence of women at the polls “has tended to make the elections quiet and orderly,” a question over which many people seemed concerned. Reel assured Cleophas that women did not vote with one mind but were divided into political parties just like men, and took great interest in campaign issues, “being, as a rule, more intelligent voters than the majority of the men.” However, though there were many women employed as schoolteachers or domestic and clerical workers, Reel noted that women in the state were otherwise “not very prominent.”79
Others who wrote to Reel were curious about women’s roles in other political duties. Reel asserted that women’s suffrage was an entire success in Wyoming. In a letter to Dora Sheldon of Iowa, Reel estimated that 95 percent of Wyoming women voted. She also noted that women were not forced to serve on juries, that women received equal payment with men, and that all classes of women voted.
Reel also addressed a big fear of anti-suffragists by admitting that sometimes a wife’s vote would kill that of her husband, but emphasizing that it did not result in disaster.80 In fact, Reel said that allowing women to vote was the impetus for reform. Women’s influence had already led to having bad laws repealed. People observing the consequences of women’s suffrage “fail to discover any injurious effects upon the women themselves, or their families. Political duties do not necessarily take up the time of any woman to such an extent that she need neglect any of her household duties…”81
Reel listed the benefits of suffrage: it frees women from dependency on males, it raises women from an inferior status, it improves the possibility of reform, it increases order during elections, and it ensures the selection of superior candidates. Reel wrote: “it will not be long before women, learning their strength, will unite together, and holding the balance of power, will be enabled to exert a most potent influence in public affairs.”82
Many people wrote to Reel for advice on how to advance the cause of equal suffrage. In a letter sent to famed suffragist Chapman Catt of New York City, Reel advised, “my public speaking during the recent campaign was confined to very brief talks…It may be that brief talks explaining what Suffrage has done for Wyoming may accomplish as much, or more, for the cause than more elaborate oratorical efforts.”83
Reel also was asked to address issues dealing with women as educators. In one instance a man from Wisconsin asked Reel for statistics concerning the efficiency of women on school boards. Though Reel had no such figures, she still advised the man that, based on her experience, it was “wise” to have both men and women on the school board.84 A letter sent from Philadelphia asked Reel whether any conflicts arose from the fact that male teachers were sometimes under the control of women superintendents. In response, Reel emphasized that instances of difficulties were rare, and that men were careful “not to assert any superiority over their women co-workers.” Additionally, Reel felt that only the “fitness” of the person being considered, not the gender, should be the only determining factor in who was selected as administrators.85
Reel quickly grew tired of the tedious and sometimes ridiculous questions she was forced to address on the subject of women’s fitness for political office. In the middle of her term as superintendent, Reel suddenly found herself dodging the rumor that she was planning a run for . Apparently, the story started when Governor Richards mentioned once on a trip to St. Louis that his 19-year-old daughter was competent to handle the work involved. Newspapers reporting this remarked, “If a girl of 19 could run the Gubernatorial office, why could not a woman of experience like Miss Reel be Governor?”86 This idea began to buzz around town, and soon Reel was in the midst of a media frenzy as newspapers around the country falsely announced her candidacy and speculated on her chances of winning. Reel protested these stories, writing a letter to the editor of the New York Sun explaining the facts.
However, this simple letter itself provoked another controversy, especially among suffragists. In writing her reply to the Sun, Reel stated that “The idea of running a woman for Governor of the State of Wyoming is not worthy of serious consideration.” As the Sun responded, and as many suffragists questioned, “Indeed, and why not?”87 The answer, as found in her correspondence and other writings, is simple: Reel considered herself not to be radical in her ideas of how women were to achieve suffrage or on the subject of women’s equality. In her response, Reel wrote that just because half of the voters in Wyoming were women, they did not expect to hold half of the offices in the state, and that the only offices they should hold were strictly educational or clerical. As long as they were allowed these positions, and received equal pay for equal work, Reel said, “they will be well satisfied. They will not attempt to encroach upon offices which should always be filled by men, one of which is the Governorship.”88
The editors, and probably many suffragettes, remained perplexed by these statements, though Reel had made her reasoning known in several previous interviews. For instance, Reel had written an article in which she questioned the right of women to seek a broader public mission than that which they already had. Reel stated that every woman, like every man, has a desire for influence, but this desire should not be expanded into new fields. Instead, Reel believed that the immediate fight for women’s equality should focus on first gaining equal wages for the fields in which women were already established.89
A letter written in April 1896 to Ella Buie of St. Louis similarly addressed this conviction. “I believe the success of the Women’s Suffrage idea in Wyoming has been due mainly to the fact that the women of the State have not asked too much at any time of the male voters…[women] were extremely modest in their requests for preferment and power. They essayed no radical reforms and did what good they could in politics and legislation in a quite unobtrusive manner…”
Reel then address Buie’s request for advice on how to achieve equal suffrage in Missouri: “Do not attempt at first to secure universal suffrage. Get first the privilege of voting in school elections. This secured, work for a voice in municipal affairs. If you secure this, the right of suffrage in County, State, and National affairs will follow in due time.”90 In other words, Reel advocated taking the movement slowly, allowing men to become acculturated to the advancements one step at a time. She feared that if too much was asked for all at once, the entire movement might be squashed in its infancy. She urged women to first pursue expansion within conventional women’s spheres, such as caring for children (education) and home (community). They could use these gains to push for roles outside their traditional interests. In this context, Reel’s response to the Sun seems to make perfect sense.
This fundamental disagreement with radical suffragists did not diminish Reel’s position as one of the most visible female public figures in the nation. She continued to give interviews expounding upon the virtues of equal suffrage in Wyoming to newspapers wherever she traveled. In 1897 she represented the Woman’s Club of Cheyenne at the national meeting of the Women’s Republican League.91
On to Washington
Though Reel faced both personal and political hardships during her time in office, she met these difficulties head-on and with integrity. Despite political divisions within her own party and criticism from Democrats, many of the public believed she rose above common politics. A newspaper article written in February 1897 notes: “There is one state officer who appears to be doing her duty as she sees it and without reference to the wishes of the gang, and that is Miss Estelle Reel, superintendent of public instruction. She has made a good officer and is to be highly commended…”92
Reel was exhausted by the heavy burdens she had borne during her three years in office, yet her political career was about to take an important leap. Two years after working for William McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign, Reel applied for the position of Superintendent of Indian Education. Despite her connections with Warren who recommended her highly, she also received warm support for this application from Warren’s opponent, Joseph Carey.93
Though no woman had ever held so high a position in the federal service, Reel’s application received the unanimous approval of the Senate. Reel was soon packing her bags and moved to Washington, D.C., leaving the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the first statewide office ever held by a woman, before the term ended.
1 Even though she was the first woman in America to be elected to a statewide office, Reel’s life and career have received relatively little scholarly attention. This article is extracted from a monograph-length biography of Reel, in preparation. Except for biographical sketches in contemporary biographical compilations, her three years as State Superintendent of Public Instruction has been mostly ignored. See Progressive Men of the State of Wyoming (Chicago: A.W. Bowen and Co., 1903); Cora M. Beach, Women of Wyoming, I (Casper: S.E. Boyer and Company, 1927). Her career in the federal service is the subject of K. Tsianina Lomawaima, “Estelle Reel, Superintendent of Indian Schools, 1898-1910: Politics, Curriculum, and Land,” Journal of American Indian Education. 35 (May 1996): 5-32. The main sources for this article on her Wyoming career are from the Wyoming State Department of Education Letterpress Volumes, held in Collection #579, Box 1, Wyoming State Archives; and Reel’s personal papers held in the Estelle Reel Meyer Collection, H60-110, Wyoming State Archives, State Parks and Cultural Resources Department, Cheyenne. Also of value was the Estelle Reel Administrative File, H54-91, also held in the Wyoming State Archives.
2 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 77. Estelle Reel Meyer Collection #H60-110, Box 3. Wyoming State Archives. Hereafter cited as Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc.”
3 An article in the New York Mail and Exchange later questioned Reel about the peculiar riding gear she wore while campaigning among ranchers. Because of the barbed wire fences, Reel said a woman in an ordinary clothing would have it ripped to shreds in only a few days, so she had an entire riding habit made of leather to protect her from barbed wire. Scrapbook, “Personal Political Misc.,” 24. For Wyoming politics during the period and Reel’s role in it, see T. A. Larson, History of Wyoming (Lincoln: University of Nebraksa Press, 1965); Lewis L. Gould, Wyoming: A Political History, 1868-1896 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968). See also: W. Turrentine Jackson, “The Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association: Political Power in Wyoming Territory 1873-1890,” Annals of Wyoming 20 (January 1948), 61-84; T. A. Larson, “Wyoming’s Contribution to the Regional and National Women’s Rights Movement. Annals of Wyoming 52 (Spring 1980), 2-15.
4 “A Charming Lady Office Holder,” in Scrapbook, “Personal-Political, Misc., 1894-1896,” 35.
5 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc.,” 209.
6 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc.,” 209.
7 Of the twelve county superintendencies at the time, ten were held by women. In a letter written to Reverend W.H. Sweet in Salina, Kansas, Reel noted that even in the first election in which women were allowed to vote, two women were elected as county superintendents. Therefore, men were accustomed to women holding office; the real problem was the level at which the office was held. Letterpress Book 4, p. 413. State Department of Education, Box 1, Collection 579, Wyoming State Archives,
8 Terrence D. Fromong, “The Development of Public Elementary and Secondary Education in Wyoming, 1869-1917.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wyoming, 1962, 158.
9 Pamphlet in Administrative File H54-91, Estelle Reel Meyer collection, Wyoming State Archives, hereafter Administrative File. This brochure includes an interview from the Denver Republican in which Reel notes that men feel she cannot perform these duties, going on to refute them by saying that she had heard many speeches concerning these issues at the Trans-Mississippi Congress, and while they were complicated she felt that any woman who studied them could understand them as well as a man.
10 Pamphlet, Administrative File.
11 Pamphlet, Administrative File.
12 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 92.
13 Scrapbook, “Misc.,” 369, Reel Collection, State Archives.
14 Scrapbook, “Misc.,” 369; Promotional circular, Administrative File.
15 Pamphlet, Administrative File.
16 Reel, who in several letters of correspondence mentioned her appreciation for the press and its contribution to her campaign, returned the favor. In one letter she noted that she had expended more than $60 in subscriptions to Republican newspapers in the state. Letterpress Book 7, p. 693.
17 Scrapbook “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896.”
18 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 11.
19 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 77. In another article, the Sheridan Journal editor coyly wrote “[Matthews] may be all right to dance the Virginia reel but he will find that the Wyoming Reel will dance him such a lively whirl that he will not be able to work himself out from the November land slide, even by algebra.” Scrapbook, 82.
20 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 18.
21 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 18.
22 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 90.
23 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 18, 35, 40.
24 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 18.
25 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 92.
26 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 92.
27 Pamphlet, Administrative File.
28 “Election Result in the State,” in Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1894-1896,” 149.
29 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1894-1896,” 103.
30 Letterpress Book 7, p. 694.
31 Fromong, 260-262.
32 Letterpress Book 7, p. 542. One of the most interesting items discovered in Reel’s scrapbook was a letter from P. Mejuef of Petersburg, Russia, thanking Reel for sending him a copy of her biennial report and the school laws. Scrapbook, “Misc.,” 169.
33 Estelle Reel, Outline Course of Study for Wyoming Public Schools. (Laramie: The Republican Book and Job Print, 1897), 4
34 Fromong, 183-184. In 1886 the legislature mandated the teaching of temperance in all public schools. Teachers were also supposed to be specifically knowledgeable in the effects of alcohol, stimulants, and narcotics on the body.
35 Letterpress Book 6, p. 219.
36 Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 73, 182.
37 Fromong, 184-185.
38 Fromong, 186-187.
39 Letterpress Book, unumbered, 93, 97. A letter to Lottie Sellon of Kansas City, Missouri, and one to Nina Johnson of Oklahoma City, noted that teachers in the city received between $50 and $75 a month as a salary, “though the price of living is very expensive.” Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 255. In a letter to Helen Worthington of Barry, Illinois, Reel noted that rural teachers received only $45 to $50 per month, and that all teachers faced a reduction of $10 to $15 per month for the coming year. Letterpress Book 4, p. 490. This is compared to a letter to May Higgenbotham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in which Reel described the yearly salaries of county superintendents as ranging from $600 for first class counties to $300 for fourth class counties; apparently these salaries were in addition to the normal teacher’s salary.
40 Letterpress Book 7, pp. 417, 257; Scrapbook, “Personal Political Misc., 1890-1896,” 46. Several items of correspondence refer to Reel’s problems with school boards in Cheyenne. For additional examples, see Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 93, 255.
41 Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 257. For additional examples, see pp. 93, 97.
42 Fromong, 258-260.
43 Fromong, 168-169.
44 See letter to S.M. Ingles, Letterpress Book, vol. 4, p. 336.
45 Letterpress Book 4, p. 374.
46 Fromong, 263.
47 For only a few examples, see Letterpress Book 6, pp. 93-97; Letterpress Book 7, pp. 424-425, 458, 466.
48 Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 23.
49 Letterpress Book 6, p. 200.
50 Letterpress Book 6, pp. 330, 331, 335.
51 Fromong, 257.
52 Fromong, 173.
53 Fromong, 248-249.
54 Fromong, 177.
55 Fromong, 249.
56 Fromong, 211-212; 223-224.
57 Fromong, 218-219.
58 Cora M. Beach, Women of Wyoming (Casper: S. E. Boyer and Company, 1927) I, 40.
59 Fromong, 225.
60 Letterpress Book 5, p. 183.
61 Box 2, Scrapbook, “Misc, E. Reel,” 390.
62 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1894-1896,” 209.
63 Scrapbook, “Political,” 75. For an account of the origins of the Carey-Warren feud, see T. A. Larson, History of Wyoming (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, rev. ed., 1978), 291-293.
64 Reel’s later career is the subject of another part of the author’s larger study from which this article is derived.
65 Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1894-1896,” 289.
66 Scrapbook, “Misc E. Reel,” 319. No title.
67 Letterpress Book 4, p. 346.
68 Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 323.
69 Letterpress Book 4, p. 369.
70 Letter to “My Dear Billy,” Letterpress Book 3, pp. 381-382.
71 Letterpress Book 5, p. 233.
72 Letterpress Book 6, p. 264.
73 Letterpress Book 6, p. 387.
74 Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 455.
75 Letterpress Book 6, p. 218; Letterpress Book 6, p. 278.
76 Letter to “My Dear Billy,” Letterpress Book 3, pp. 381-382.
77 Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 323. The question about elevating politics is apparently referring to the widespread reports that allowing women to vote in Wyoming had a great “civilizing” effect on the election process and led to less violence at the polls.
78 The community name does not appear in Mae Urbanek, Wyoming Place Names (Boulder: Johnson Publishing, 1967). Quite likely, the name was given to the “post office” located at Mrs. Cleophas’ ranch home.
79 Letterpress Book 4, p. 461.
80 “A Charming Lady Office Holder,” in Box 3, Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1894-1896.”
81 Letterpress Book 5, p. 31.
82 Letterpress Book 5, p. 31.
83 Letterpress Book, unnumbered, 286. Reel often made disparaging remarks about her own speaking ability. For instance, she responded to a request to speak at the teacher’s institute in Sheridan County: “As you know, I am not a fluent speaker and would not think of charging for the lecture.” Letterpress Book 6, p. 231.
84 Letterpress Book 4, p. 488.
85 Letterpress Book 4, p. 490.
86 Scrapbook, “N.E.A. 1896-1897,” 4.
87 “The Protest of Superintendent Reel,” in Box 3, Scrapbook, “Political E. Reel,” 98.
88 “The Protest of Superintendent Reel,” in Box 3, Scrapbook, “Political E. Reel,” 98.
89 “A Wider Mission,” Box 3, Scrapbook, “Personal, Political, Misc., 1890-1896,” 47.
90 Letterpress Book 5, p. 325.
91 Letterpress Book 7, p. 394.
92 Scrapbook, “Campaign, 1896-97,” 50, 175.
93 “U. S. Department of the Interior, Office of Supt. of Indian Schools endorsements,” folder in Box 1, Estelle Reel Meyer Collection.
This article first appeared in Annals of Wyoming: The Wyoming History Journal 75 (Winter 2003). The author, a native of Missouri, holds the M.A. degree in history from the University of Wyoming, where she specialized in the history of Wyoming and the American West. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Northwest Missouri State University. This article is extracted from the first portion of a monograph-length biography of Reel, now in progress.