Eliza Pickrell Routt (1839–1907) was the first First Lady of the territory and later state of Colorado in 1875–79 and 1891–93. A strong supporter of women’s suffrage, she used her position as wife of Governor John Long Routt to advocate for expanded voting rights. When Colorado became the second state to grant suffrage to women in 1893, she was the first woman registered to vote. Her belief in women’s equality also led her to push for higher education for women and support causes that advanced opportunities for women in Colorado.
Eliza Franklin Pickrell was born in 1839 in the small town of Mechanicsburg, Illinois, which her family had founded. Her parents died before she was four years old, so she was raised by her maternal grandparents and their nine children near Springfield. Eliza’s grandfather, William Elkin, was an Illinois state senator who knew and worked with Abraham Lincoln. Eliza’s grandmother, Elizabeth Elkin, provided her with a cultivated Victorian upbringing that included literature, arts, and European travel. The family’s interest in politics and its emphasis on education prepared Eliza for the public life she would later lead in Colorado.
Little else is known about Eliza Pickrell’s life before her marriage, at the age of thirty-five, to John Routt, a widower with five children. Originally from Illinois, John Routt was living and working in Washington, DC, at the time as the second assistant postmaster general of the United States. The couple were introduced by a mutual friend when John was back in Illinois on a visit. They courted through letters before marrying in 1874. After the wedding, Eliza Pickrell Routt joined her husband’s family in Washington, DC.
First Lady of Colorado
John Routt benefited from the friendship and patronage of President Ulysses S. Grant, under whom he had served in the Civil War. In 1875 President Grant appointed him territorial governor of Colorado. When the Routts arrived in Denver later that year, Eliza Routt took her place as the First Lady of Colorado Territory.
Although the Routts were outsiders to Colorado, they quickly won the confidence and affection of the people. John Routt was an effective leader who shepherded the territory to statehood in 1876. He was then elected as the first governor of the new state of Colorado, making Eliza Routt the state’s first First Lady.
Life in Colorado
As Colorado’s First Lady, Eliza Routt was expected to supervise her household, become involved in the community, entertain official visitors, and set an example for women of the state. In fulfilling that role, she channeled her energy into many causes and public service works. She and John joined Central Christian Church, where they served as active members for the rest of their lives. She helped establish the Woman’s Home Club, which later became the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), providing housing for young women working in Denver. She also served on the board of directors of the Denver Orphans’ Home and worked with the Ladies Relief Society, which helped needy families and maintained a home for elderly women.
At the end of John Routt’s term as governor of Colorado, he left politics to mine for silver in Leadville. When his Morning Glory Mine struck a rich vein of silver in 1879, the Routt family became wealthy overnight. They bought a grand mansion with beautiful gardens in Denver, where they hosted political and society events. Meanwhile, in 1880, at the age of forty-one, Eliza Routt gave birth to the couple’s only child, a daughter named Lila.
Eliza Routt is best known for her work on behalf of women’s suffrage. Colorado’s original state constitution, adopted in 1876, allowed women to vote in school district elections. Wider suffrage rights for women were left up to a referendum of the state’s male voters in 1877. Before the election, Eliza worked with her husband, an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage, to bring national suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony to Colorado. Anthony and Governor Routt campaigned together across the state. Despite their activities and Eliza Routt’s efforts, suffrage for women was defeated by a margin of two to one.
Eliza Routt, her husband, and their fellow activists did not give up. They worked together over the next sixteen years to achieve suffrage for women. The culmination of their fight came in the early 1890s, after John Routt was elected once again as governor of Colorado, serving from 1891 to 1893. During his term, he continued to advocate for women’s suffrage. Soon after he left office, his efforts helped bring the question once again before the state’s male voters. In the run-up to the November 1893 contest, Eliza Routt was elected president of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association’s Denver branch, which helped organize the prosuffrage campaign.
When Election Day arrived, prosuffragists won about 55 percent of the vote. Colorado became the second state to grant women suffrage and the first state in which suffrage was voted in by a referendum of the male voters (the territories of Wyoming and Utah granted suffrage in 1869; suffrage for women was then written into Wyoming’s constitution when it became a new state in 1890). Eliza Routt became the first woman registered to vote in Colorado. An article in the Denver Times noted, “It is eminently fitting that the wife of the first governor of the state, and a lady who has been so intimately connected with all that is best in Denver since the foundation of the state, should be the first woman in Colorado to become a fully qualified elector.”
Higher Education for Women
After women gained the vote, they began to seek political offices and appointments, through which they could influence the state’s development. Eliza Routt took advantage of these new opportunities to press for the expansion of women’s educational opportunities. The cause was not a new one for her; in 1888 she served on the first board of trustees of the newly formed Colorado Women’s College.
Routt’s ability to influence state educational policy increased after the success of the suffrage campaign. In 1895 she became the first woman appointed to the State Board of Agriculture at Colorado Agricultural College in Fort Collins (now Colorado State University). In that role, she advocated for young women to attend Colorado Agricultural College and served as chair of the committee to create a department of domestic economy.
Under Routt’s leadership, the college established the new department, hired Theodosia Ammons as its head, developed a domestic training curriculum, and renovated a building for the Hall of Household Arts. Later, Routt helped secure the gift that resulted in the construction of Guggenheim Hall as a new home for the department. At a time when women had few options in higher education, these reforms provided them with an important foothold.
Later Years and Legacy
John and Eliza Routt continued to be involved in Denver social and political life until they moved to Paris in 1900 for health reasons. After staying in Europe for two years, they returned to Colorado, living at the Metropole Hotel in downtown Denver. On March 22, 1907, Eliza died of complications from liver disease and diabetes.
Eliza Routt’s work on behalf of women’s suffrage and higher education continue to be recognized across Colorado. Because of Routt’s dedication to voting equality, the Colorado secretary of state’s office created the Eliza Pickrell Routt Award, which goes to those Colorado high schools where 85 percent of eligible seniors are registered to vote. At Colorado State, where she focused her efforts to expand higher education for women, she is the namesake of Routt Hall, while Guggenheim Hall, the former home of the department of domestic economy, has a stained-glass window in her honor. In 2008 Routt was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.