Carrie Clyde Holly (1856–1943) of Pueblo County was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1894. She was one of the first three female legislators in the United States. In 1895 Holly became the first woman to get a bill she drafted made into law, the so-called Holly Law, which raised the age of consent for sex outside of marriage. She served only one term in the state legislature but remained politically active for decades as a lawyer, school board member, and campaigner for women’s rights.
Life before Colorado
Carrie Clyde Holt was born in New York City in July 1856, the oldest child of William W. Holt and Maria Fanning Holt. She and her six younger siblings grew up in Stamford, Connecticut. Her father, a lawyer, was a descendant of Revolutionary War hero Samuel Clyde. Around 1881, Carrie married Charles Frederick Holly, a lawyer in New York, who had previously served as a Colorado territorial legislator in 1861–62 and as a Colorado state Supreme Court justice in 1876. Carrie Clyde Holly gave birth to her two daughters, Emily and Helen, while she still lived on the East Coast in the 1880s. She also did some work with Lillie Devereaux Blake, president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association.
At the end of the 1880s, the Holly family moved to Colorado, where they settled on a farm in Vineland, Pueblo County. Charles worked as a lawyer while Holly raised their daughters, studied law, wrote poetry for the local newspaper, and served as president of the Pueblo School Board. Although women did not have full suffrage when Holly first moved to Colorado, they could vote in school board elections and serve as school board officers. Colorado women achieved full suffrage in 1893.
Campaign of 1894
Women in Colorado quickly took advantage of their new rights. One year after achieving the right to vote, Holly and other women joined the fray and campaigned for public office. On September 6, at the Pueblo County Republican Party convention, Holly was nominated for a seat in the state House of Representatives. When she went onstage to accept the nomination, “the convention went fairly wild.” She ran on the Republican ticket and gave speeches about the importance of free silver coinage and raising the age of consent for sex outside of marriage, both of which made it onto the state’s Republican Party platform. (Unlike the national Republican Party, Colorado Republicans supported restoring silver, which was heavily mined in the state, to serve with gold as the standard for currency in the United States.) She also spoke of the challenges of being a woman on the campaign trail and the importance of women voting for Republicans.
House of Representatives, 1895
In 1895 Holly arrived in the Colorado House of Representatives with an extensive legislative agenda. She proposed a total of fourteen bills. Three were morality bills designed to punish activities such as seduction; three dealt with education; three concerned women’s rights within the family; one was about advancing cases to the Colorado Supreme Court; and one would have imposed an educational qualification on voters. Notably, her bill for equal rights in Colorado came thirty-eight years before the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in the US Congress. She also drafted a House Joint Resolution congratulating New York and California on having the opportunity to vote for women’s suffrage in 1895; it passed the House but was buried in committee by the all-male Senate.
Of the fourteen bills Holly introduced, one became a law. The “Holly Bill,” as it became known, proposed to protect girls and young women by changing the age at which a woman could legally consent to sex outside of marriage from sixteen to twenty-one. If a man had sex with a younger woman or girl, he could be charged with rape.
On January 23, 1895, Holly spoke on the state House floor in favor of her bill, the first time ever in US history that a woman had argued in a legislative session on behalf of her own bill. The significance of Holly’s speech was recognized at the time, especially by women. According to the Pueblo Chieftain, “Women were everywhere. They packed the space railed off for them. They made an almost solid line around the three sides of the House on which extend the galleries set apart for men. They occupied chairs beside the members or sat in the aisles. They even knelt on the floor near Mrs. Klock, Mrs. Cressingham and Mrs. Holly.” When Holly and her supporters spoke, cheers and applause erupted; when opponents spoke, they were booed.
After much debate in the House and many shenanigans in the Senate (including a profane version of the bill proposed by the Senate judiciary committee that caused Holly and the other women present to leave the Senate chamber in disgust), Holly’s bill passed with the age of consent set at eighteen. When Governor Albert McIntire had some last-minute doubts about signing the legislation, Holly wrote to him from her sickbed and convinced him to change his mind.
After the General Assembly
Holly did not run for reelection to the House of Representatives, but her interest in laws and government continued. In 1895 she wrote an article for a national magazine describing how she passed her age-of-consent law, and she continued to write on political topics locally. On December 8, 1896, five years after women were first allowed to be attorneys in Colorado, she was admitted to the bar to practice law. She practiced both civil and criminal law. She also continued to serve on the local school board during and after her year in state office.
Holly maintained her pro-silver position, which placed her in the minority of the Republican Party. After the demise of the party’s pro-silver faction in the late 1890s, she explored other political parties. In October 1901, the Pueblo County Democratic Party nominated her for superintendent of the school board, an election she lost, and in 1912 she was a precinct captain for the Progressive Party. She also served on an ethics commission for municipal government reform in Pueblo.
Holly’s efforts on behalf of women’s rights continued. She argued in favor of placing women on juries, and she went to Kansas in 1912 to campaign for women’s suffrage there.
When Holly served in the House of Representatives, she sometimes had her husband and daughters (ages eleven and seven) at work with her. On September 7, 1901, Holly’s husband, Charles, died. On March 1, 1902, she married Peter T. Dotson. She divorced him after seven years.
In 1919 Holly moved to Colorado Springs to live with her daughters, Emily (divorced) and Helen (widowed). Shortly afterward, the three moved to the Pacific Northwest, where they spent the rest of their lives.
On July 13, 1943, at the age of eighty-seven, Carrie Clyde Holly died of coronary thrombosis in Cowlitz County, Washington, and was cremated.
Many of Holly’s contemporaries saw the enactment of the Holly Law as a victory for women. Not only did the law protect potentially vulnerable young women, but Holly’s authorship also proved that women could be competent legislators. National suffragists used Holly’s legislative success to show that women could engage in political leadership and that they could bring high morals to government. Her example helped further the social revolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that resulted in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote across the United States. The immediate impact of Holly’s labors was recognized nationwide, but today her efforts tend to be subsumed under a massive wave of suffrage-era firsts for women, and her legacy is not well known, even in Pueblo County.