Caroline Nichols Churchill (1833–1926) was a writer and newspaper editor best known for founding and editing the Queen Bee, a Denver weekly newspaper dedicated to “the interests of humanity, woman’s political equality and individuality.” Embracing progressive and feminist causes, Churchill promoted female independence and was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights. Churchill’s unconventional stances meant she was not always supported by leaders of the women’s suffrage campaign but that she and her newspaper nevertheless played active, influential roles in the Colorado suffrage movement.
Caroline Nichols was born in Pickering, Ontario, Canada, to American parents on December 23, 1833. Essentially self-educated, she had only one year of formal schooling when she was sent to America to study with an aunt. When she returned to Canada, she started a small school and taught local children in her family parlor, as well as working as a seamstress. An avid reader, she continued to supplement her education by reading any materials that were available.
Churchill had “weak lungs” and struggled with health problems her whole life. It is unclear if she had tuberculosis, suffered from allergies, or had some other ailment. She attributed her ill health and frail constitution to the fact that her father was more than fifty years old when she was born. She believed that her health would improve only if she lived an “outdoor life.” Her health struggles allowed her to make unconventional choices and gave her the ability to pursue a life outside the norm for women at the time.
As a young woman, she did follow a conventional path, marrying in her early twenties a “Mr. Churchill” because (as she later wrote in her autobiography) “no one knew what else to do with a girl.” She moved with her husband to Minnesota, where she lived an isolated life and experienced Indian conflicts and warfare. She worked as a teacher and also had a millenary and dressmaking business. During this time, she studied the writings and perhaps became a friend of Jane Grey Swisshelm, a prominent Minnesota newspaper editor and suffragist, who introduced her to the populist and feminist ideas she would later promote. Her husband died in 1862, leaving the twenty-nine-year-old Churchill in poor health with a young daughter.
In 1869 Churchill left her daughter with her sister in Minnesota and moved to California, seeking a milder climate that might relieve her health problems. She supported herself by writing about her experiences as a lone female traveler in the post–Civil War West. On her trips through Texas, Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory (present Oklahoma), and California, she wrote what she described as “little descriptive works.” In her books Little Sheaves Gathered While Gleaning After Reapers (1874) and Over the Purple Hills: Sketches From Travel in California (1883), she wrote about the people she encountered during her travels and infused her writing with feminist social commentary. The books sold well—travel writing of this kind was quite popular at the time—and she gained prominence as a literary figure.
Settling in the San Francisco area, Churchill wrote essays, poems, and sketches for local and eastern US newspapers. A popular speaker, she also lectured about women’s rights and became involved in local politics. She was offered a staff position at the Pioneer, a women’s paper in San Francisco, but she turned it down to continue writing books and freelance articles.
The Colorado Antelope
On her way from California to Chicago in 1879, Churchill stopped in Denver. With its high altitude and its distance from large bodies of water, the city had what she later called “a good atmosphere for weak lungs.” She thought it might be the perfect place to improve her health. At the age of forty-six, she decided to make Denver her permanent home.
While Denver’s physical climate initially attracted Churchill, the political climate proved to be a good fit as well. Living in a recently established society, many Coloradans were receptive to new ideas and reform, including the progressive and feminist issues Churchill embraced. She decided to realize her long-standing dream of publishing her own newspaper devoted to women’s causes, which she believed would counter the mainstream press that catered primarily to the interests of men.
The first edition of Churchill’s monthly newspaper, the Colorado Antelope, was published in October 1879. She chose the name because antelopes were alive, active, and hard to take down. The paper’s motto declared that it was “devoted to the interests of humanity, woman’s political equality and individuality.” For three years, the Antelope, written largely by Churchill, contained travel articles, feature and news articles, editorials and essays, humorous anecdotes, short stories, and poetry, along with commentary about Churchill’s political and social agenda of equal rights for women. The paper was a commercial success and gained widespread circulation.
The Queen Bee
On July 5, 1882, Churchill renamed the paper the Queen Bee and began weekly publication. The new masthead enjoined readers: “Come Let Us Reason Together.” She published the paper continuously for the next eighteen years, never missing an issue, and eventually became known as the “Queen Bee” along with her paper. She traveled extensively in Colorado to gather news, sell subscriptions and advertisements, and deliver newspapers.
The Queen Bee was a dense publication, filled from margin to margin with text and ads. The newspaper advocated first and foremost for equal rights for women. Churchill liberally infused her writing with outrage at women’s place in society. She vented her frustration about men, who she believed wielded so much power in the world. She felt it was her mission to tell the “unpalatable truth about masculine tyrants.” Her writing was opinionated, sharp, and sarcastic, and laced with humor.
Churchill wrote about suffrage and also tackled other social topics such as prohibition of liquor and tobacco, equality in marriage, legal rights for widows, education for girls, equal pay for women, worker’s rights, and equal treatment of minorities. The paper also contained recipes, stories from her travels, interviews, and interesting tidbits of news from around the country and the world.
The Suffrage Movement in Colorado
Although the Queen Bee was an important voice in the Colorado suffrage movement, Churchill was not embraced by the movement’s leadership. When the Colorado Equal Suffrage Association was formed in 1881, she refused to join because the association had elected a man as its first president. She considered the Colorado Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a major force behind Colorado’s suffrage movement, to be too conservative. Indeed, she refused to join any women’s club, believing that they were elitist groups that tended to focus on trivial matters. She did not cover their activities in her newspaper. In turn, the established suffragist organizations believed Churchill was too outspoken, alienating the men who would ultimately decide the issue. Movement organizations considered her an eccentric character rather than a legitimate campaigner.
One reason for the rift between Churchill and many women’s groups was philosophical—in arguing for voting rights, should women focus on their similarities to or differences from men? Churchill believed that men and women were inherently equal and should be granted suffrage based on their natural rights as human beings. Many clubwomen and many organizations involved in the Colorado suffrage movement, on the other hand, believed that women should be granted suffrage based on the innate differences between men and women. These women believed that voting women should champion domestic and social issues in the public sphere.
Nonetheless, the Queen Bee was a popular paper. In 1882 the newspaper’s circulation was 2,500, the highest of any weekly newspaper between Kansas City and San Francisco. The paper’s widespread circulation kept women’s issues in the forefront of public discussion during the years after Colorado’s unsuccessful 1877 suffrage vote, helping to build new support in the run-up to the state’s 1893 suffrage referendum. “Every woman in the land should be astir in preparing for the coming election,” Churchill wrote in 1893. “The emancipation of the women of the country simply means the dawn of a golden era.”
On November 29, 1893, the front-page headline of the Queen Bee celebrated the suffrage victory: “Western Women Wild With Joy Over Colorado’s Election,” with a picture of three women sitting in trees while grinning at the camera. Never modest, Churchill claimed, “The Queen Bee having been on the suffrage warpath for seventeen years is probably the reason why the Colorado women are free.”
After the suffrage victory, Churchill continued to publish the Queen Bee for two more years. In 1895 the Queen Bee closed down “for repairs.” The paper may have been published intermittently in subsequent years, but no issues of the paper after September 4, 1895, still exist.
Little is known about Churchill’s life after 1895. At age sixty-two, she moved to Colorado Springs to live with her sister, and she may have taken up teaching to support herself.
In 1909, when Churchill was seventy-seven years old, she wrote and published an idiosyncratic autobiography, Active Footsteps, which details bits and pieces of her life as well as her thoughts on a wide variety of topics. She referred to herself in the third person—“Mrs. Churchill”—enabling her to promote herself and her actions “so that her ego might be hidden.” “Susan B. Anthony . . . and Lucy Stone . . . did noble work in the East,” she wrote, “but did not accomplish the political emancipation of a single State. Mrs. Churchill has performed a wonderful work under the most difficult of circumstances. It is not at all likely that another woman on the continent could under the same conditions accomplish as much.”
Caroline Nichols Churchill died in Colorado Springs on January 14, 1926, at the age of ninety-two.