Clara Cressingham (1863–1906) served in the Colorado House of Representatives in 1895, making her one of the first female legislators in the United States, along with Frances Klock and Carrie Clyde Holly. In office, she became the first woman to serve in a leadership role (as secretary of the Republican House Caucus) as well as the first woman to get a bill through the legislature, though her proposal to support the sugar beet industry was vetoed. Aside from her brief political career, relatively little is known about the rest of her life.
Clara Howard was born on October 6, 1863, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the oldest daughter of Adelia and Seth Howard. As a child, she showed a talent for singing and public speaking. Any plans she may have had to go into those professions changed when her father suffered financial losses. In 1880 she was working as a dressmaker and her father as a carpenter. Sometime in the early 1880s—most sources say 1883—she married William Harry Cressingham, who had been in the navy. The couple had two sons, Richard and Milburn.
The Cressinghams moved to Colorado in 1890 because of William’s health. He had acquired unspecified health problems during a previous trip to China and Japan. Once in Denver, he worked as a newspaper typesetter and wrote articles for journals, while Clara worked diligently to improve schools. Her involvement in school board elections, in which Colorado women could vote, may have led to a greater engagement with politics and the issue of women’s suffrage, though it is unknown whether she campaigned for the 1893 referendum that gave Colorado women full voting rights.
In 1894, the first year women in Colorado were eligible to vote, Cressingham helped register women to exercise their new right. She also took charge of a group fighting against factions in a school election, leading a charge for decency and fairness that earned recognition from the other women involved. She gained a reputation as a public speaker and was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives that fall as a Republican from Arapahoe County (which then still included Denver). When the legislature met in early 1895, she joined fellow Republicans Frances Klock and Carrie Clyde Holly as the first three female legislators in the United States.
The Chautauquan described Cressingham, Klock, and Holly as “level-headed, self-possessed . . . and well versed in the business of politics.” They were committed Republicans, nearly always voting with their party. Cressingham, the youngest of the three at thirty-one years old, became the first woman to hold a legislative leadership position when she was elected secretary of the Republican House Caucus. She also proposed four bills dealing with education, labor, and agriculture. Her bill to support the sugar beet industry by paying growers a small bounty per ton became the first act introduced by a woman to pass both houses of the legislature, but it was vetoed by Governor Albert McIntire and did not become law.
Like Klock and Holly, Cressingham served only one term. She passed away in 1906, at age forty-three, of rheumatic heart disease. Her time in office, including her leadership and her lawmaking, made her an inspiration and example to other politically inclined women in Colorado and across the country.