On the anniversary of women’s suffrage, we wanted to take a moment this election season to talk about women in Colorado and notable leaders of our fair state. Women have been in the news a lot recently and for good reason, but perhaps not as much as they should be given all the newsworthy things they’ve done. But it’s also true that the women of Colorado have been political, cultural, and social leaders for the state’s entire history. This heritage is readily identifiable by anyone who honestly looks for it and the historical influence of these women is still felt today.
Wyoming was the first territory and state to give women the right to vote. Colorado followed suit three years later in 1893, but the state had long been part of the larger cultural movement for women’s suffrage. For those who don’t remember U.S. History from their high school and college days, let’s take a minute to refresh ourselves. While the first National Women Right’s Convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY, it was the western states who first pioneered the political will to grant women’s suffrage. And this was largely because of agricultural and the demands of farm life.
Women were an indispensable part of the family farm and knew most every part of the family business. When the patriarch of the family passed away, the widows were the most natural person to inherit and subsequently run the family farm, despite having no direct influence on their local county governments. In Colorado’s original, failed attempt to pass women’s suffrage in 1877, Boulder County, known for its populist farmers, was the only county to vote for women’s suffrage. Giving women the right to vote was, in many cases, seen as an act to protect the family’s financial interests as it was an issue of social justice.
Yet, it also took a bunch of pavement-pounding, grassroots, leaflet-distributing activism with an entire cadre of female leaders coordinating a largely unified and unifying effort. These women were motivated and politically smart. Some of their efforts included campaigning in bars and saloons to reassure men that women didn’t want the right to vote just to take away their booze.
Caroline Churchill, editor of the feminist publication Queen Bee, was an early mover and shaker. Ellis Meredith, a columnist at the Rocky Mountain News, and Minnie Reynolds, the society editor, also helped ignite the campaign. Along with friend, Elizabeth Ensley, head of the African American newspaper The Denver Star, they reconstituted the old Colorado Woman Suffrage Association into the Non-Partisan Colorado Equal Suffrage Association. You can read more about these women and this historical period from Callie Jones at the Journal-Advocate.
Fast forward a hundred years and we see female leaders in Colorado everywhere we look—past, present, future. We see features of female CEOs and young entrepreneurs. We look at the annual list of the top 25 most powerful women in Colorado, determined by the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce. We review the inductees and keep an eye out for the newest members of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. Yet, all around us, we still see ways in which we’re coming up short both in our institutional treatment of women as well as the overall role that women play in our politics. And it’s perhaps this disparity between our heritage as a leader of women’s suffrage and the lagging promise of real gender-based political equality—the same disparity between the reality and our aspirations—that has publications perpetually asking, “Is this the year for Colorado women in politics?” And rightfully so. But no matter what happens with any particular election outcome, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves that Colorado’s path has always been shaped by women and a political-economic climate that demands more equitable contributions from—and more equitable compensation to—members of society, regardless of their gender.