How the wild west led the east in women’s suffrage

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Poster showing the west leading the east.

MOST people think New Zealand was the first place to give women the vote, but in reality it was the fledgling territory of Wyoming, USA, as a new film co-produced by a former Canberran shows.

The documentary, “The State of Equality”, nominated for Best Historical Documentary and Best Musical Score in the “Heartland” chapter of the 2020 Emmy Awards, shows how the wild, wild west led the east in the struggle for women’s suffrage. 

Poster for the film.

A grassroots movement that preceded the 1893 New Zealand legislation by 24 years and the 1929 passing of the American 19th amendment for female suffrage by 51 years, it saw Wyoming Territory in 1869 become the first democracy in the modern world to recognise a woman’s right to vote, well before it became a state in 1890. 

It’s a proud tale that film producer Sophie Barksdale and director Geoff O’Gara, based in Lander, Wyoming, have been dying to tell.

Barksdale has been living for about five and a half years in Lander, where her husband Scott, originally from Arkansas, works for the non-profit global wilderness school NOLS and she is the producer and development associate for Caldera Productions, founded by O’Gara.

“Wyoming feels like this little bubble, it’s so rural, so ‘wild west’,” she says.

“But I’m finding it the perfect environment to raise our six-year-old son, River.”

Barksdale was raised in the heartland of the Canberra arts community, the daughter of noted composer Jim Cotter and teacher-librarian Julie Gardner.

Educated at Orana Steiner school, which she describes as “glorious”, she speaks glowingly of the drama elective in her final years at Hawker College, where she studied drama under Steve Brown and Bren Weatherstone. She still belongs to a Facebook group of old Hawker drama students and says, “I think of film as just an extension of drama”.

Sophie Barksdale. Photo: Sara Wiles.

She and her sister Alice grew up in what she calls “lounge room rehearsal spaces”, supplementing their income by babysitting for a director at the School of Music, where her father taught composition, and learning by osmosis “how important storytelling is”.

But after school she moved elsewhere.

“You know how you rebel when you come from a hippy family,” she says.

“I went into corporate recruitment, although I kept my hand in by stage-managing a live circus in Melbourne.”

Then she headed north, living in Greece, working in Scotland, London, and for a year with the Irish Film Board, now Screen Ireland.

“That was a huge turning point for me… I met people living outside the box,” she says.

While waiting to hear if she’d got an Irish green card, she took off to walk the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Fate intervened when she met her husband Scott on the Camino, simultaneously learning that her green card application had been turned down. 

The pair moved back to Melbourne, where she worked as an executive assistant to the then-deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria, director Francis Lindsay.

But with the birth of River, Scott wanted to repatriate to the US, so they moved, first to arty Taos in New Mexico and then eventually to Lander, where the NOLS headquarters are.

Three women on horseback at Carissa Mine, South Pass City. Photo: Wyoming State Archives.

It was a bit of a culture shock landing in the “wild wild west”, known for cowboys, Yellowstone National Park and the gold rush, and replete with rich native American history. 

“Wyoming makes sense, it’s been good, and it’s a lovely city with a huge arts community and film scene. The city has been most welcoming,” she says.

“But when they told me it was the home of the women’s vote, I thought they were lying.”

Her plan had been to be a housewife, but immediately she met someone in the library who, on hearing that she had worked in film, passed her phone number onto O’Gara. The rest is history. 

“People wrangling” is what she does but she also “makes” the films happen, looking for ideas and funding. Luckily in the case of “The State of Equality”, the general manager of WyomingPBS, Terry Dugas, had approached them and taken over the fundraising. 

They were aware that O’Gara as director and Dugas as co-producer were both “old white men”, with Barksdale the only woman executive, so it became important to fill every other place with women.

She engaged top female academics to suss out the truth about the suffrage story and her Wyoming researchers were to find that there were so many “origin stories” that were untrue or self-serving. 

”Wyoming thrives on storytelling, so it’s hard to work out whether there’s a grain of truth in any of the stories… we had to resist so many popular myths and we wanted to tie in with the national story of the 19th Amendment,” she says.

Most people, she asserts, want to know the real story, and there were uncomfortably racist elements to the movement for women’s suffrage as white ex-Confederates men manoeuvred to swamp (with their wives’ votes) the votes of the many African-American miners and Buffalo Soldiers who settled there after the Civil War. 

“Barksdale has been finding parallels between the colonial histories of the US and Australia, including in a “Stolen Generation” story of “Indian” boarding schools in the US, the subject of her latest film with Geoff O’Gara directing, “Home From School”.

Watch “The State of Equality” via YouTube.

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