Margaret West Norton Campbell (1827–1908) was an ardent advocate of women’s rights and one of the nation’s most sought-after suffrage speakers. In Colorado she was instrumental in the 1877 campaign for women’s suffrage. The measure failed, but her work paved the way for suffrage to be enacted in Colorado sixteen years later, in 1893.
Margaret West Norton was born on January 16, 1827, in Hancock County, Maine, to David and Elizabeth Norton. Her grandfather, Noah Norton, had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War. After attending local schools, in 1847 she married lawyer John Barker Campbell of nearby Waldo, Maine. The couple had three children: George, Susan Elizabeth, and Charles Parker. Charles died in 1863.
Entering the Suffrage Movement
In 1857 the Campbells moved to Linn County, Iowa. During the Civil War, Margaret was active in soldiers’ aid societies and made her first public speeches in favor of women’s suffrage. By the late 1860s, with grown children, Margaret and John were back in Massachusetts, where Margaret began her suffrage work began in earnest. In February 1870 she attended a convention in Boston’s Horticultural Hall, during which the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association was founded as an affiliate of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Campbell gave a speech providing an account of the suffrage work that she had led in Hampden and Hampshire Counties; she did not claim credit for herself, but other suffrage leaders knew her role. She went on to serve as an officer of the AWSA for more than twenty years.
By 1871, in the campaign for women’s suffrage in Vermont, Campbell had become a key figure on the suffrage lecture circuit. By 1872, in her home state of Maine, she was considered one of the most effective suffrage organizers. For the rest of the 1870s, she and her husband traveled the country lecturing in support of suffrage. As part of her lecture tours, she gathered signatures on prosuffrage petitions, which were then delivered to each state’s legislators.
Working for Equal Suffrage in Colorado
By 1874, AWSA members were targeting Colorado as a promising place to push for equal suffrage as the territory started its transition to statehood. By mid-November 1875, the AWSA had dispatched the Campbells to the territory, where Margaret began to hold a series of women’s suffrage meetings. That month, the Boulder County News described her as “a middle-aged woman, modest, earnest, sensibly dressed, of sweet and womanly voice, an engaging and impressive manner, gifted in speech, and above most of her fellow mortals of either sex.”
On January 10, 1876, as delegates worked to hammer out a new state constitution in Denver, Campbell recruited Colorado Grange member Albina Washington to help organize a convention of suffrage supporters nearby. Campbell declared that the “convention had been called to present to the law-making powers woman’s claim to the ballot, so that some means might be taken whereby every woman might not continue to be the political subject of every man.” The convention resulted in the establishment the Colorado Woman Suffrage Association (CWSA), the forerunner of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association. Campbell and the CWSA employed a number of tactics to generate support among convention delegates. They held public meetings around the state, gathered signatures on petitions, and wrote newspaper columns.
Despite her energetic work on behalf of women’s suffrage, Margaret Campbell experienced significant frustrations during the Colorado campaign. Lack of funds forced John to leave the suffrage work to her while he tried to find a job to pay their living expenses. Public hearings were often badly attended. As she reported to AWSA leaders, “we were told in Central [City]—one of the places where we could not get a hearing—that we must advertise a dog fight, and then we would get a crowd.” More important, she noted that some Coloradans believed equal suffrage would interfere with statehood. “The newspapers so far as we have seen, are either opposed or afraid to come out boldly. The cry with them is—it will endanger the new constitution.”
As Campbell feared, the constitutional convention’s suffrage and elections committee included a provision that voters must be male. (Women were allowed to vote only in school board elections.) She was successful, however, in persuading delegates to require that the issue of women’s suffrage be put to a vote at the next general election, in 1877—and to allow it to be put to a vote again in any subsequent year.
Suffrage Campaign of 1877
In fall 1876, the Campbells headed east, where they worked for suffrage in Rhode Island, but they returned to Colorado in time for the 1877 campaign. Campbell was influential in bringing national suffrage leaders Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Susan B. Anthony to the state to advocate for the suffrage referendum. Stone saw firsthand the hard work that the Campbells put into the cause. “Mr. and Mrs. Campbell crossed five of the snowy ranges, sometimes making their bed upon hemlock boughs out of doors where, in spite of woolen and rubber blankets, the intense cold banishes sleep,” Stone recorded in her diary.
Yet the Campbells failed to win the support of the major political parties, and most of the state’s newspapers also took a negative view. In Pueblo the Colorado Daily Chieftain claimed that Campbell had “inserted her shriveled limbs in a pair of her hen-pecked husband’s cast-off pantaloons, and proceeded to shriek for the ballot for women.”
On Election Day, October 2, 1877, the suffrage referendum failed by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Both Margaret Campbell and Susan B. Anthony believed that race and education were factors in the defeat. According to the Chieftain, Campbell identified the enemies of suffrage as “the ignorant, degraded and superstitious Mexicans of the south . . . and the uneducated and uncultivated Negroes of the north.” While it is true that, in keeping with their Catholic faith, Hispano men tended not to favor suffrage, county vote totals show that the lack of support was widespread across the state. Only Boulder County voted in favor.
After the defeat in Colorado, Margaret and John Campbell continued their nationwide work for suffrage. In 1879 they moved to Iowa, though Margaret continued to be one of the nation’s most widely sought public speakers on suffrage and frequently traveled to take part in various state suffrage campaigns. She also remained active in the Iowa State Suffrage Association through the 1890s, serving as president and corresponding secretary. She died on November 5, 1908.
Even though they failed in 1877, suffrage advocates in the state could sustain hope thanks to the constitutional provision Campbell had secured allowing the issue to be placed on the ballot in any subsequent year. As national suffrage leader Henry Blackwell later wrote, “that provision enabled . . . resubmission and adoption [of women’s suffrage] in 1893.” That eventual victory, he believed, was a direct result of Margaret and John Campbell’s earlier labors. “Colorado,” he wrote, “ought to erect a monument in their memory.” So far the state has not taken Blackwell up on his suggestion.