The Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association was the main organization in Colorado working toward granting women the right to vote. The association and its precursors were influential for more than thirty years, from Colorado’s failed suffrage referendum in 1877 to its successful suffrage referendum in 1893 and finally to the state’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919. The association relied primarily on speakers, newspaper articles, and leaflets to spread its message.
Background and First Steps
In 1861 the territory of Colorado was established. Seven years later, in 1868, former governor John Evans and D. M. Richards of Denver advocated for women’s right to vote, but the territorial legislature failed to act. Instead, in 1869, it was the territory of Wyoming that first granted women suffrage in the United States. Colorado territorial governor Edward McCook tried again the following year, telling the legislature, “Our higher civilization has recognized women’s equality with man in all other respects save one—suffrage.” Again, the measure was defeated. On the national level, women’s suffrage was debated during discussions of the Fifteenth Amendment, but that amendment, ratified in 1870, ultimately extended voting rights to black men while continuing to exclude women.
Statehood and Suffrage
By late 1875, it was becoming clear that Colorado would attain statehood the next year. Proponents of equal suffrage began to work in earnest to ensure that women in the new state would have the right to vote. On January 10, 1876, suffrage advocates held a convention at Unity Church in Denver, timed to coincide with the state constitutional convention. Margaret W. Campbell of Massachusetts, one of the country’s most prominent suffrage advocates, helped organize the convention. The meeting was publicized by placing leaflets on representatives’ desks at the territorial legislature and at the constitutional convention. The suffrage convention established the Territorial Woman Suffrage Society, the precursor to the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association, and elected Alida C. Avery, the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Colorado, as president. A committee of the newly formed society gave a report at a session of the constitutional convention.
On February 15, 1876, the state constitutional convention’s committee on suffrage issued two reports to the convention. The minority report in favor of granting women the right to vote was signed by only two members‚ Judge H. P. H. Bromwell of Denver and Agapito Vigil, who represented Huerfano and Las Animas Counties. Governor John Routt, himself a strong proponent of women’s suffrage, also lent his support to the minority report, but ultimately the majority report stating that voters must be male citizens won out. There was only one exception: women would be allowed to vote for school board officers.
Despite the defeat of equal voting rights at the convention, Judge Bromwell managed to win support for one provision that gave suffragists hope. Article 7, Section 2, stated that “the General Assembly may at any time extend the law of suffrage . . . [by] a vote of the people at a general election and approved by a majority of all votes cast.” In other words, it would take only a simple majority of the state’s male citizens—not the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment—for women to be granted the right to vote.
On August 1, 1876, Colorado became a state. In 1877 the new state’s First General Assembly put the question of women’s right to vote on the ballot. The Territorial Woman Suffrage Society changed its named to the Women’s Suffrage Association of Colorado and convened in February 1877 to start the campaign. Governor John Routt and his wife, Eliza, hosted national suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Henry B. Blackwell, who were brought in to canvas the state along with Margaret Campbell. Stone and Blackwell spoke in the southern part of the state in early September, then returned to the northern counties, while Anthony spent most of her time in the southern part of the state.
Opposition to suffrage was fierce, including resistance from religious leaders. The prominent Catholic priest Joseph P. Machebeuf preached from pulpits all over the state that “the class of women wanting suffrage are battalions of old maids disappointed in love.” On Election Day in November 1877, the measure was defeated by a more than two-to-one margin, with the state’s predominantly Catholic and Hispano southern counties voting strongly against. Only Boulder County voted for suffrage. The Women’s Suffrage Association of Colorado disbanded.
In April 1890, Matilda Hindman of South Dakota traveled to Colorado to garner support for the equal rights campaign in her home territory. She also hoped to reawaken interest in suffrage in Colorado. Hindman succeeded. During her visit, six women met at her hotel room to revive the old Women’s Suffrage Association of Colorado. Soon the newly reestablished organization attracted some of the state’s most prominent women, including Louise Tyler, head of the Colorado Women’s Christian Temperance Union; writers Ellis Meredith, Minnie Reynolds, and Patience Stapleton; physician Mary Elizabeth Bates; and African American activist Elizabeth Ensley. Believing in part that the failure of 1877 was due to women who had not been ready to support suffrage, they made the decision to remove the word woman from the organization’s name and replace it with the word equal to appeal to more voters. It was now the Colorado Equal Suffrage Organization.
As part of their strategy to achieve suffrage, the founders of the Colorado Equal Suffrage Organization took advantage of the constitutional provision allowing women to vote in school board elections. By May 1893, they were able to organize sufficient female turnout to make longtime educational reformer and suffragist Ione Hanna the first female school board member in Denver. Hanna was the first woman elected to any governing body in the state.
Also in 1893, the Ninth General Assembly passed a bill to put the question of women’s suffrage before the state’s male citizens in that year’s election. At the time, the Colorado Equal Suffrage Organization had only twenty-eight members and twenty-five dollars to its name. The group renamed itself once again, becoming the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association of Colorado, and reorganized its leadership, with Martha Pease as president, Ellis Meredith as vice-president, and Elizabeth Ensley as treasurer, tasked with filling the group’s meager bank account. Their goal was to build a broad coalition, encompassing all political parties and any other groups who would support suffrage.
Since the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association had almost no money and no members with strong public speaking skills, Meredith headed to the Women’s Congress at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in search of funds and speakers from national suffrage leaders. But Susan B. Anthony felt the timing was wrong. The National American Woman Suffrage Association was unwilling to provide funding, but the group did provide a speaker, Carrie Chapman Catt, whom Meredith considered “better than silver or gold.” Auxiliary clubs had already been established in Longmont, Colorado Springs, Greeley, and Breckenridge. As Catt traveled around the state giving speeches, she helped establish additional auxiliary suffrage chapters that provided funds and influenced voters at the local level. One chapter, the City League of Denver, elected Eliza Routt, the state’s first lady, as its president.
In August 1893 the state headquarters of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association opened in the Tabor Opera House block in Denver, with Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor donating free use of the room. Journalist Minnie Reynolds served as the association’s chair of press work, convincing three-quarters of the state’s newspaper editors to come out in support of suffrage and to reserve space in their papers for prosuffrage articles. Using her professional position as society editor for the Rocky Mountain News, Reynolds would attend parties of wealthy Denver women and use the occasion to garner support and funds for the association. Her sister, Helen Reynolds, was the association’s corresponding secretary, keeping communication lines open throughout the state. Author and journalist Patience Stapleton, writing in the Denver Republican, lent her platform to the cause. In Fort Collins, Grace Espy Patton promoted suffrage in the woman’s journal Tourney, and in Cañon City, publisher Emma Ghent Curtis worked to convince coal miners to support suffrage. Laura Ormiston Chant, an English suffragist, also lent her support to the campaign on the speaking circuit.
Gearing up for the November election, the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association distributed 150,000 leaflets. One reason for the failure of 1877, the group’s leadership believed, was that no one had shown the state’s women why they should support suffrage. The leaflets addressed that problem directly. “Women of Colorado, do you know the opportunity that is before you this fall? Do you know that there is a possibility you may rise to legal equality with man?” one leaflet asked the state’s women. “Awake from your indifference . . . The ballot is the greatest power and protection of this day and age.”
By the eve of the election, more than 10,000 women were working for suffrage in at least sixty suffrage chapters. With a strong prosuffrage coalition that included leaders in the Republican, Democratic, and Populist Parties—as well as unions, farmers, miners, temperance organizations, and members of both black and white clubs—the campaign faced little organized opposition.
The Populists, who had come to power in the election of 1892, suggested that “it was time to let the women vote—they can’t do any worse than the men!” The liquor industry, fearing that female voters would work to outlaw alcohol, distributed a circular ridiculing those in favor of suffrage, but otherwise advocates of expanded voting rights dominated the campaign. On Election Day, November 7, members of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association spurred voters to the polls, and they also stood by voting stations to make last-minute appeals. When the final votes were tallied, 35,698 came in for suffrage, with 29,461 against. Colorado had become the first state to win the vote for women by popular election, and Colorado first lady Eliza Routt became the first woman registered to vote in the state. The law officially took effect on January 1, 1894.
From Colorado to the Nation
Even after suffrage passed in Colorado, the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association remained active. Indeed, the campaign the association had carried out in Colorado became a model for other states. Members of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association began working on the national stage as the National American Woman Suffrage Association asked them to support and help lead the state-by-state effort to enact suffrage. Minnie Reynolds, for example, moved to New York and worked for the national association from 1901 to 1909. Ellis Meredith testified before Congress in 1904 about Colorado’s legislative progress for women. In 1917 she moved to Washington, DC, to work on suffrage as part of the Democratic National Committee’s women’s bureau. Another NPESA member, Mabel Cory Costigan, served on the board of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and became active in the District of Columbia Suffrage Association after she and her husband moved to Washington, DC, in 1917.
Despite the nationwide efforts of experienced Colorado suffragists, the state-by-state strategy for achieving women’s suffrage seemed stalled in the early 1900s. Between 1896 and 1910, no states voted in favor of suffrage for women. By 1913, believing that the state-by-state method was unlikely to succeed in achieving universal suffrage, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns formed a splinter group, eventually known as the National Women’s Party, to push for a constitutional amendment.
This shift in strategy proved decisive. On June 4, 1919, the proposed amendment that prohibited denying the right to vote to citizens on the basis of sex was sent to the states for ratification. Even though women had been able to vote in Colorado for more than twenty-five years, the state still took six months to approve the amendment, finally doing so on December 12, 1919. The Nineteenth Amendment was officially adopted into the US Constitution on August 26, 1920.