When teaching high school history, I always enjoyed the class conversation when I asked the following question:
“While the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, the right to vote was already given to women as early as 1869 at the state level in certain parts of the country. Who knows the first state to grant this?”
The students would immediately guess California or somewhere on the East Coast. Of course the first state to grant this was “The Equality State,” as it was later known. But if you close your eyes and imagine Wyoming in the year 1869, empowered women are probably not what come first to your mind. In fact, the whole “Wild West” evokes images of Colt-wielding rugged white guys, and the roles of women or minorities are eclipsed by this typical imagery — except for the maltreated Indians, of course.
We don’t spend much time learning about the women in Wyoming, nor the first congresswomen to be representatives of frontier states. Similarly, not a lot of time is spent learning of people like the Exodusters, the surprisingly high proportion of black and Hispanic cowboys, nor the discriminated-against Irish seeking land ownership on the frontier.
So, why the West? Big Sky country wasn’t exactly a breeding ground for Progressive ideology, and yet it seemed to be a haven for many disenfranchised folks.
There are many explanations of Wyoming’s politics (and many other western states and territories that quickly followed), but one theory always stuck with me. I appreciate its simplicity, and potential for a theory of all human society:
When society is primitive, and people are barely scraping by, institutionalized inequality has no time or place to establish itself. When you are not sure if your town will make it through the winter, you don’t have time to establish racial, sexual, ethnic, or economic hierarchies.
Of course, there has never been such a thing as a completely equal society. In the same way stronger people could catch more food in early hunter-gatherer societies, the West had rich prospectors, poor farmers, wealthy speculators and struggling prostitutes. Some towns were diverse, some very white. Laws shared this diversity. Some towns had terrible gun violence, others had none. Some towns outlawed guns, some towns lived confidently because everyone carried one. The West was as diverse as a “society” could be, but shared one commonality: there was little evidence of institutionalized inequality relative to the rest of the nation.
Inequality is a lack of justice. And in the West, justice was an entirely local phenomenon.
The Cowboy form of justice relied on a few simple principles — a clear and widely understood definition of justice, and an intimate grappling with truth because the responsibility of ensuring justice usually fell on you or your immediate community. Despite what Westerns portray, this did not usually encourage gun-toting, reckless vigilantism. It simply allowed individuals and communities to do what they thought was best.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have opted for justice as what can only be described as a form of federal pest control. Rather than help ourselves or our fellow man, we beg Pest Control to label an entire species as the enemy of our neighborhood (based of course on anecdotal evidence). Finally, we legislate blanket definitions of “types” of people to consider enemies. We can even put those creeps on watch lists. When we see something wrong, being helpless without Pest Control, we call and wait on hold until we can complain to a bureaucrat who will send an underpaid stoner-turned-raccoon-catcher to take care of it for us.
So, what about today? As a white male satisfied with his own gender, who adheres to a Judeo-Christian morality, there is little I can say about justice for those who feel its absence. Yet despite how cushioned from reality I may be, I share a similar fear.
This lack of justice does not make me fear for my life. But, when we see something terrible and cry for outrage and support from an institution who within hours of the events had literally changed the law to avoid prosecuting a precious matriarch in its Royal Family, I fear dreadfully for this nation.
When the frontier closed in the early 1890s, many saw it as the end of democracy. With no well of opportunity for malcontent pioneers, the role of the rugged, independent and responsible individual who had no choice but to be a good part of his or her community has perhaps died. We lost the idea that nature was our common enemy, and when pitted against it, humans and our issues are very, very small.
While there is no frontier anymore, perhaps we can remember the surprisingly diverse cowboys that roamed it. We can look at righteously angry blacks, agitated police officers, overeducated socialists, worried family-value supporters, disgruntled workers hoping someone can make the country “Great Again,” and see shared, common desires to live our lives the way we and our communities think best. Despite what birds-eye view the media feeds us, there are not many excused from these desires because they feel too “privileged.” The desire to take back our lives and identities is real and growing.
Some might reduce the idea of John Wayne to a white man who shot red men. They are probably the same people who think it is ok to fester in factions that name-call, interrupt parades, and hinder free speech in hopes of gaining the favor of Pest Control.
What’s our goal, then? Provoke nationwide anger? Widespread action? Legislation? Insist more humans die for narratives that negate statistics? If you fear institutionalized injustice, the problem may be the belief that we need to compete for favor from an institution in the first place.
I know, I am jumping into a moment of righteous anger from a community I don’t exactly belong to. But this is precisely why I bring it up right now. It is too ironic that factions squabble over who deserves justice on the day that our federal government changed the very definition of it.
If there was ever a chance for a society to unite, it is over this: Each one of us is an individual, capable of recognizing and opposing evil, and capable of doing good and giving thanks for it.
Featured image by Priscilla Westra