After being stuffed in a neglected corner of the Idaho Capitol where staff was the main audience, an exhibit on the state’s first women legislators is moving to a new home.
The makeover was prompted by 11-year-old Anna Wiese from Hailey who absolutely loves politics.
Just about every time she makes the two-hour drive with her mom, Nancy Wiese, to Boise, she has one thing on her mind: She has to see Idaho’s marbled Capitol.
“My favorite area is the elevators,” Wiese said. “They’re gold and they’re awesome.”
Last year, when she was 10, the two had a new mission. Nancy said Anna wanted to spend a few hours combing through every corner of the building.
“We enjoy just walking around and this particular trip we were kind of going through every nook and cranny of the building and that’s when we discovered that.”
What they discovered was a plaque dedicated to the history of Idaho’s first women legislators. But Anna said she wasn’t happy about it.
“I thought it was very, very sad because that could be out here with all the men and it shows that women can make a change in the world,” she said.
They walked around a bit longer that day, but Nancy said her daughter just couldn’t shake that feeling even after they had gotten home.
“She was standing there looking at it and she told me, ‘Something doesn’t feel right. I just don’t feel right right now.’ That’s your body telling you something needs to change,” Wiese said.
So, like any enterprising elementary school student who loves politics would do, Anna wrote a letter to her Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett (D-Ketchum) with the help of her mom.
She talked about her recent trip to the capitol and then got right to the point.
“I personally believe that this important framed document should be placed in the main hall where several other important historical documents are hung … I would like to see this changed for it sends a message that men and women are not treated equally,” she wrote.
Anna, like all 4th graders in the state, had taken a whole year of Idaho history lessons. But she never learned about these women.
So, let’s take a minute to change that.
Idaho became the second state in the country where women won the right to vote in 1896. Two years later, Clara Campbell, Harriet Noble and Mary Wright were elected from three different political parties.
“I think their legacy is they jumped right into it and served as soon as they could. They were all active in introducing legislation,” said Elizabeth Jacox, a historian with TAG Historical Research in Boise.
Campbell, a Boise Republican, had just unsuccessfully run for Ada County Treasurer in 1898 when she landed a seat in the state House of Representatives.
Noble was a suffragette and businesswoman from Idaho City that won her race with the Democrats.
The youngest of the three, Wright, turned 30 years old just before taking her spot at the capitol. The populist candidate from Rathdrum in Kootenai County would go on to have a long career in politics.
Jacox said the trio further cemented women’s right to vote, expanded powers for nonprofits and preserved a hand-carved statue of George Washington that still sits in the Idaho capitol today.
Wright even presided over the House for a day, possibly becoming the first woman in the country to ever do so, according to Jacox.
“The Statesman headline the next day read: “House gavel wielded by a firm woman.”
Anna had sent her letter to Sen. Stennett right around election season last fall. It turns out, her friend’s mom, Muffy Davis, had just won a seat to the state House of Representatives and found out about her letter.
Davis said searching for the plaque was toward the top of her list when she came to the capitol for freshman lawmaker orientation.
“I agreed exactly with Anna that it was tucked away in a back corner in a hallway that not many people got to, so it needed to be moved to a more prominent location,” she said.
So, Davis and Stennett got to work. The Idaho State Historical Society eventually yanked the plaque off the wall and moved it downstairs to the Garden floor rotunda where it’ll see much more foot traffic.
The same plaque is hanging on the wall and the exhibit now has two glass display cases that’ll rotate different artifacts related to these women.
The first one will be the gavel Wright used when she temporarily became Madam Speaker for a day.
Anna, who wants to be both a politician and a doctor when she grows up, said she hopes people take away an inspiring message from this.
“Children can make a change,” she said. “Kids my age can make a change, not just adults.”
If nothing else, her potential future colleagues in the House or Senate can count on nothing slipping by her eagle eyes.
Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.
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