Helen Ring Robinson (c. 1860–1923) was the first woman elected to the Colorado State Senate in 1912 and the second woman elected to any state senate in the nation. In her role as senator during the Progressive Era, she was a passionate advocate for social reform that supported women, education, labor, and the mentally ill. Robinson was a leader in the national effort for women’s voting rights and traveled throughout the country giving speeches on women’s suffrage.
Early Life and Teaching Career
Helen Margaret Ring was born in Eastport, Maine, around 1860 as the sixth of nine children. Her family later moved from Maine to Providence, Rhode Island, where she graduated from high school around 1877.
After attending Wellesley College for one year in a “teacher special” program that provided additional training for teachers, Helen Ring taught school in various locations, including Cleveland, Ohio, and Yonkers, New York, before moving to Colorado Springs in 1893 to teach at Colorado College. In 1895 she moved to Denver, where she taught English, history, and literature at Wolfe Hall, a private girls’ school. From 1898 to 1902, she worked at the Miss Wolcott School as the head of the high school academic department.
In 1902 forty-two-year-old Helen Ring married Ewing Robinson and quit teaching; at the time, it was common for women to stop working when they married. In other respects, the Robinson marriage was less conventional. Helen and Ewing Robinson lived apart for some of their married life, and he did not participate in her public life. She did become a devoted stepmother to his daughter, Alcyon, with whom she maintained a close relationship all her life. Whatever its inner nature, Helen Robinson’s marriage appears to have provided her with financial security and the opportunity to devote her time to writing, politics, and eventually public office.
Writing, Speeches and Women’s Clubs
After her marriage, Robinson served as a freelance writer for local newspapers. She became well known in Denver for her book reviews, interviews with prominent authors and politicians, and columns about social justice issues. She traveled to Europe and interviewed the wives of famous writers, wrote a children’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and reported on political events, including the 1908 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Robinson also became involved in some of the many women’s clubs that proliferated across the country, and especially in Denver, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These clubs provided women an academic and a social avenue to enrich their lives. At a time when only a handful of states had granted women the right to vote, women used their clubs to champion issues that they cared about, including traveling libraries, orphanages and homes for indigent elderly women, and reforms of child labor, working people’s rights, marriage, and voting rights.
Robinson’s most important club activity was the Denver Woman’s Press Club, which she joined in 1899. The club’s membership was made up of well-known women in the Denver writing and political community, and the contacts Robinson made in the club contributed to the success of her political career. She served as president of the organization in 1909–10, was active on committees, and made frequent presentations to the group. She became a featured speaker at conventions and clubs throughout Colorado, acquiring a reputation as a feminine, maternal woman who spoke eloquently on the rights of women, children, and oppressed peoples.
“Housewife of the Senate”
Robinson’s club friends initially encouraged her to enter politics. After Colorado granted women the right to vote in 1893, women were being elected to the Colorado House of Representatives and to other statewide offices. In 1910 Robinson, too, turned to electoral politics. That year she ran for state superintendent of public institutions but lost the election to the incumbent woman.
Less than two years later, in August 1912, Robinson announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the Colorado State Senate. She won the primary and then was elected to the senate in a Democratic landslide, making her the first woman elected to the Colorado State Senate and just the second woman in the country to be elected to any state senate. She became known as Mrs. Senator Robinson. “I am going to be the housewife of the senate,” she said. “I shall take it upon myself to look after the women and children. I shall feel honored to introduce any laws drawn up for their welfare and protection.” She claimed that the men in the senate treated her as one of them, with the exception that they removed their hats and cigars when speaking to her.
During her four years as a senator, Robinson fulfilled her promise to be the “housewife of the senate.” She sponsored and supported a wide variety of legislation aimed at improving the lives of women and children. Significantly, she sponsored a bill proposing a minimum wage for women, stating that women who were not paid a living wage were often forced into prostitution, and that if society tolerated low wages, it shared the blame for the social ills that followed.
Robinson supported bills allowing women to serve on juries and strengthening food-safety regulations. She fought for a minimum wage for teachers, state support for education in rural and poor communities, and a minimum length for the school year. She introduced a bill stipulating that the state “consider the best interests of the child” for neglected children and proposed a committee to investigate the state insane asylum and recommend modern treatments.
In 1914 Robinson was instrumental in helping to resolve the Ludlow Massacre, the bloody culmination of a coal miners’ strike in southern Colorado. Robinson led other Colorado women in camping at the State Capitol and demanding that Governor Elias Ammons call in federal troops to quell the violence. Robinson visited the massacre site in support of the miners and their families.
In the 1910s, Colorado was one of several states that allowed women the ballot, but suffragists in other states were still fighting for women’s right to vote. In addition to state-level suffrage campaigns, there was also a movement to add a women’s suffrage amendment to the US Constitution. “The best argument for woman suffrage,” Robinson said, “was the good old argument of democracy. Believe in democracy and you must believe in equal suffrage.”
As the only female state senator in the nation in the mid-1910s, Robinson was a highly sought-after speaker. Her feminine demeanor, articulate and witty speaking style, and strident message were highly effective in gaining support for the suffrage cause. From 1913 to 1917, she traveled on speaking tours to other states. During one short tour she gave more than sixty speeches. She also served on panels and participated in debates across the country.
Robinson decided not to seek reelection to the state senate in 1916, choosing instead to work as a national and international leader for suffrage and peace. She continued to be an important spokesperson for suffrage, traveling to other states, working with a multitude of suffrage groups, and advocating at both the state and national levels. As more states allowed women to vote, women and men increasingly voted for representatives who would support suffrage at the national level. On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, granting female citizens the right to vote.
To educate female voters, Robinson wrote Preparing Women for Citizenship, which was published in 1918. She emphasized the need for women to rethink their role in society and to use their new right to advocate for human need rather than for profit.
Peace Movement and World War I
Alongside Robinson’s work on behalf of women’s suffrage, she was also active in the peace movement after the outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914. Robinson joined other peace advocates on a vessel called the Peace Ship financed by Henry Ford, which sailed for Europe in 1915 to encourage neutral nations to help negotiate an end to the fighting. The mission was unsuccessful, and in 1917 the United States entered the war. Robinson then devoted herself to the war cause, serving on the Colorado State Women’s Council of Defense. She traveled throughout Colorado to raise money for Liberty Bonds.
In her later years, Robinson continued to publish articles and columns on social and feminist issues. She also represented the United States in international gatherings of women in Madrid and Geneva. These meetings addressed the needs of women worldwide, including the right to vote.
Robinson died on July 10, 1923, when she was about sixty-three. She lay in state in the Colorado State Capitol rotunda, with honor guards from the Denver Woman’s Press Club and the League of Women Voters. In 2014 she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.