In 1893 Colorado became the first state to enact women’s suffrage by popular referendum, when a majority of male voters approved an amendment to the Colorado Constitution. The passage of women’s suffrage built on decades of earlier work in the Colorado Territorial Legislature (1861–76) and state General Assembly (after 1876). The legislative activity provided two conditions that made suffrage possible in 1893: the state constitution explicitly allowed for future referenda on women’s suffrage, and the repeated attempts to pass women’s suffrage in the legislature over more than two decades made its eventual passage possible.
1870: Territorial Legislature
The Colorado Territorial Legislature first considered the question of women’s suffrage in 1870. On January 5, territorial governor Edward McCook recommended the territorial legislature take up the issue, a year after Wyoming Territory enacted women’s suffrage. Each chamber of the legislature—the House and the Council—then referred women’s suffrage to a special committee.
In the Council, the special committee voted against women’s suffrage, but Amos Steck (Arapahoe and Douglas Counties) and J. W. Nesmith (Gilpin County) presented a minority report in favor of women’s suffrage. An attempt to invite women to hear Steck speak on the issue was voted down. Despite Steck’s support, no bill was proposed in the Council.
In the House, Allison H. DeFrance (Jefferson County) proposed a suffrage bill, and he also spoke at length in favor of women’s right to vote. People were invited to speak on the subject, including Council president George A. Hinsdale in opposition and Willard Teller and Thomas J. Campbell in support, as well as any members of the public—including women. In its final form, DeFrance’s bill would have put suffrage to a popular referendum with women included among the voters. The bill was indefinitely postponed. Neither chamber held a vote directly on the question of women’s suffrage.
1875–76: Colorado Constitutional Convention
The most important legislative session in Colorado women’s struggle for suffrage was the state constitutional convention in 1875–76. The convention did not put women’s suffrage into the constitution, but it paved the way for the passage of women’s suffrage by referendum in 1893.
Women’s suffrage organizations across the state and the country wrote to the convention in support of their cause. Suffragists both watched the proceedings and presented their arguments formally in the chambers.
The Committee on Rights and Suffrage in Elections decided against allowing women to vote, and their recommendation was accepted by the convention. However, committee members Agapito Vigil (R-Huerfano and Las Animas Counties) and Henry P. Bromwell (R-Denver) presented a lengthy minority report in support of women’s suffrage. Their report proposed that instead of full suffrage, women might be granted the right to vote in school elections, a concession that the convention granted. In a final effort, Abram Young (R-Jefferson County) hoped to advance the cause of women’s suffrage by moving to strike “male” from the phrase giving suffrage to “every male person.” His proposal failed, 42–8.
Nevertheless, in addition to school board suffrage, three crucial measures relating to women’s right to vote were included in the constitution. First, the General Assembly was required to submit a referendum on the question of women’s suffrage to the voters in 1877. Second, if that measure failed, the General Assembly might at any time after 1877 extend the right of suffrage to women by resubmitting the question to (male) voters. In either case, the question would be decided by a simple majority.
Although it appears innocuous, the simple-majority requirement was vital because it made it far easier to amend the constitution in favor of women’s suffrage than to amend it for anything else. Other amendments required decisions by a two-thirds vote of two different General Assemblies and two different popular votes and the creation of another constitutional convention. Women’s suffrage required only that the assembly send the question to the “qualified electors” and that a bare majority of those voters approve.
1877: The First Popular Referendum
Two women’s suffrage bills were proposed in 1877. Representative Charles Kittredge’s House bill defied the constitution by requiring Colorado voters to approve the referendum by a two-thirds majority. In contrast, Senator Silas Haynes (Weld County) wrote a bill in accordance with the constitution: women would be provided the right of suffrage if the referendum received a simple majority. Haynes’s bill became law and the question of women’s suffrage was placed on the ballot. However, the popular vote failed by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
1879: The Second State General Assembly
In 1879 Senator Edward O. Wolcott (R-Gilpin) introduced a women’s suffrage bill. It passed in the senate by a vote of 14–12 and was sent to the House. There Lucas Brandt (R-Larimer County) presented two petitions in favor of women’s suffrage, one from the “citizens of Colorado” and one from the “State grange patrons of husbandry.” After a great deal of discussion on the House floor, that chamber voted 24–17 to table the bill indefinitely, effectively killing it.
1881: A Close Call in the House
In 1881 Representative Jared L. Brush proposed a women’s suffrage bill in the House. Henry Bromwell, still active in the suffrage movement, and Mrs. L. F. Stevens of Wyoming were invited to speak to the General Assembly on suffrage. Alida C. Avery presided over their presentation. Many votes were taken on the bill with inconclusive results, but in the decisive final vote, the bill lost 24–23. No action was taken in the senate with regard to women’s suffrage.
1891: Legislative Rules
A decade passed before the General Assembly took its next action on women’s suffrage. In February 1891, suffrage proponents persuaded legislators to support women’s suffrage. Committees were created in both House and Senate in early February. A few weeks later, these committees met jointly to listen to arguments in favor of suffrage, but they told the suffragists that it was too late to submit a bill for that session. No bill was introduced in either chamber.
1893: Equal Suffrage Passes
In 1893 legislators proposed five bills on the subject of women’s suffrage: two in the senate and three in the House. In his address to the General Assembly, Populist Governor Davis Waite had suggested that the assembly consider the subject of municipal suffrage (allowing women to vote in city elections), and Senator David Boyd (P-Weld) proposed such a bill while Senator Hamilton Armstrong (P-Arapahoe) proposed a bill for full suffrage. Of the three bills in the House, Representative Heath’s (P-Montrose County) House Bill No. 118 prevailed despite a lengthy legislative process that included substantial amendments, multiple procedural hoops, and a negative recommendation from the committee on elections and appointments. Petitions in favor of women’s suffrage came in from citizens of Rocky Ford and the Trade Assembly of Aspen.
In accordance with the state constitution, Heath’s law put the question of women’s suffrage to (male) voters in Colorado. On November 7, 1893, the majority of voters cast their ballots in favor of women’s suffrage. Colorado women finally attained the right to vote on December 2, after the official counting of the ballots was confirmed and the governor proclaimed women’s suffrage in the state.
1919: National Women’s Suffrage
On the first day of the General Assembly in 1919, the Colorado Equal Suffrage Association invited all legislators and their families to attend a reception. In the House, Representative Mabel Ruth Baker (R-Denver) proposed House Joint Resolution No. 2, which encouraged the US Senate to pass the constitutional amendment on women’s suffrage. In the State Senate, Agnes L. Riddle (R-Denver), the second female senator in Colorado, served as a coauthor. By this time, sixteen women had served or were serving in the Colorado House of Representatives.
On June 4, 1919, the US Senate followed the US House of Representatives in voting to amend the US Constitution to ensure that the right to vote would “not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
The amendment required ratification by thirty-six states to take effect. In December 1919, Colorado governor Oliver Shoup called an extraordinary session of the General Assembly to ratify the amendment (among other business). Representatives May T. Bigelow (R-Denver) and Mabel Ruth Baker proposed the resolution in the House, while Senator Riddle proposed one in the Senate. (At the time, Colorado was one of only two states that had women serving in both chambers of the legislature.) Both houses voted unanimously in favor of the amendment, making Colorado the twenty-second state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. On August 26, 1920, the nation caught up to Colorado and the Nineteenth Amendment became the law of the land.