In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Colorado, women’s labor was often vital to a family’s economic survival. Historian Katherine Harris demonstrated in her study of Logan and Washington Counties that women’s earnings from butter, eggs, and the garden often provided much of a farm family’s income. Harris concluded that the families she studied “strongly suggest women’s considerable status within the family. Men and women generally had different roles to play, but the mutuality between the sexes, enforced by the needs of homesteading, expanded women’s power to negotiate and win.”
Harris’s study of women in northeastern Colorado is just one example of how women’s work underwrote the early development of Colorado. Whether it was on the homestead, in schools and hospitals, or at a political rally, women of varying classes and cultures overcame prejudice and unique hardships to make significant contributions to the state.
Before and after statehood, women were instrumental in building Colorado communities, often responsible for a town’s first school, library, or church. At age fifteen Carrie Ayers set up Sterling’s first school, teaching twenty students in a fourteen-by-sixteen-foot sod schoolhouse. Mary Pratt opened Yuma’s first school in 1885, accepting students as old as twenty-four. Education-minded parents around Julesburg had to send their children to school in Sidney, Nebraska, more than thirty miles away, until Amelia Guy established a local school in 1885.
Hispano women in the state’s southern reaches faced unique challenges. Historian Sarah Deutsch writes that after the Mexican-American War (1846–48), Anglo- Americans sought, often through economic means, to “perfect the incomplete conquest,” while Hispanos tried to “prevent it.” As Hispano men left their villages to take seasonal work, women kept the communities alive. Deutsch notes, “Through their visiting, their sharing of food, plastering, childbearing, and, most important, their stability, production, and earnings as non-migrants, women provided . . . not only subsistence, but continuity and networks for community, health and child care, for old age and emotional support.”
In mining communities, women fought to transform chaotic camps into proper places complete with churches, schools, and libraries. Successes often turned to dust as booms turned to bust. Sometimes, at least for a few decades, the women succeeded. Georgetown, although founded in 1859, did not graduate its first high school class until 1879. In 1880 it hired one of its alumnae, eighteen-year-old Lizzie Rattek, to teach at the school. That same year Roman Catholics opened an elementary school conducted by the Sisters of St. Joseph, one of many women’s religious congregations that established orphanages, schools, and hospitals. By 1900, the Georgetown area could boast that 95 percent of local children between the ages of eight and sixteen were in school. After studying community life in the upper Clear Creek region between the 1870s and 1900, historian Leanne Sander concluded that “Rocky Mountain mining town society was not ‘male dominated’ . . . Women and men created western mining society together.”
In building Colorado society, women sometimes assumed nontraditional roles. Visitors to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia flocked to the Colorado exhibit to see hundreds of stuffed animals and birds, shot and mounted by Martha Maxwell, “Colorado huntress,” whose taxidermy fooled the emperor of Brazil into whistling at a stuffed terrier. Staying more within the bounds of “ladylike” pursuits, Alice Eastwood collected plants, an avocation that eventually made her one of the nation’s top botanists. Sadie Likens won her place in history by serving in the early 1890s as Denver’s first police matron.
Women in Medicine
Long accepted as nurses, by the early twentieth century, some women were finding an occupational niche as medical doctors. Dr. Justina Ford, an African American, made her mark delivering an estimated 7,000 babies during her long career. Barred from Denver hospitals on account of both her race and gender, Dr. Ford went to people’s homes to deliver babies of all races. “Whatever color they show up,” she said, “that’s the way I take them.” Dr. Susan Anderson encountered similar prejudice in Denver. An 1897 graduate of the University of Michigan, one of the best medical schools in the country, she tried to practice in the Mile High City but left in 1900 because “people just didn’t believe in women doctors.” Anderson opened her own practice in the cold, high mountain town of Fraser.
Meanwhile, forty-five Roman Catholic nuns ran many of Colorado’s schools, hospitals, and orphanages. The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth raised money to open St. Vincent’s Hospital, which serves Leadville to this day.
Colorado women of all stripes took up many more causes besides education and medicine. Recognizing that artifact seekers were destroying Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings, Virginia Donaghe McClurg and Lucy Peabody lobbied for protection of the ruins. Working-class women in the Cripple Creek Mining District did not allow notions of proper feminine behavior to keep them from militantly supporting their husbands as they unionized and fought mine owners and state troopers. Historian Elizabeth Jameson learned of one such woman, Hannah Welch, who “had two great big butcher knives and she kept those knives razor sharp. And she always said if one of those militia men ever come [sic] in her house in the middle of the night, they’d leave with less than they brought in!”
Journalism offered some women an outlet for their talents and an opportunity to question the male-dominated status quo. Emma Langdon, who published the Victor Record after its pro-labor staff had been jailed, won an honorary membership in the Western Federation of Miners for her courage. During the 1880s and early 1890s, Caroline Nichols Churchill championed women’s causes in her Denver-based weekly newspaper the Queen Bee. “Society,” she insisted, “will never construct a government worthy of the respect [of its citizens] . . . until women form part of its councils.” Learning that a woman had beaten a man in a prizefight, she exulted, “Some of these men have to have the conceit taken out of them even if it is done on a physical plane.” With similar verve, Albina Washburn, a columnist for Denver’s Labor Enquirer, argued in late 1887 that city and farm women should join laboring men to fight the “mob of rich men—rich only in stolen wealth crying for our blood.”
When journalist Minnie J. Reynolds founded the Denver Woman’s Press Club in 1898, it admitted writers such as poet Alice Polk Hill as well as non-writers such as Mary Elitch Long, proprietor of Elitch Gardens amusement park. The club became a professional haven in the twentieth century for numerous women, including Lenora Mattingly Weber, author of juvenile fiction books, and Marian Castle, whose romantic tales of pioneer life became best-sellers.
The movement for equal suffrage in Colorado began before statehood, such as when territorial governor Edward McCook urged lawmakers to grant women the vote in 1870. A handful of delegates at the state’s constitutional convention in 1875–76 wanted to include women’s suffrage in the constitution but were outvoted. An 1877 referendum on women’s suffrage failed despite a rigorous statewide campaign led by national suffragette Susan B. Anthony and local suffragettes such as Margaret Campbell. But by the late nineteenth century, attitudes toward equal suffrage had shifted considerably; in 1893 thirty-three state newspapers supported the cause as opposed to just eleven that did not.
That year, suffragettes and their supporters rallied for support of another referendum, this one drafted by a male lawyer from Denver and sponsored by Representative J. T. Heath of Montrose County. Denver teacher Martha A. Pease, president of the Equal Suffrage Association, along with journalist Reynolds, novelist Patience Stapleton, Grand Junction’s Dr. Ethel Strasser, Colorado Springs’s Dr. Anna Chamberlain, Salida’s Dr. Jessie Hartwell, and many others, led the campaign to convince voters that women were intellectually capable and deserving of the vote. The measure passed by 6,000 votes, making Colorado the first state to enact equal suffrage by referendum.
Denver, Pueblo, Colorado Springs
In 1910 more than a third of Colorado’s 368,327 women lived in its three largest cities: Denver, Pueblo, and Colorado Springs. Each city offered women educational opportunities, clubs, and social activities. Denver’s exclusive Wolcott School, along with the Roman Catholic St. Mary’s Academy and the Episcopal Wolfe Hall, prepared young ladies for finishing at eastern colleges or at local institutions such as Loretto Heights College or Colorado Women’s College. Clubwomen fought against alcohol and for civil service reform. They supported numerous charitable enterprises, including Denver’s National Jewish Hospital. Some women found time for weekly lectures, ranging from “Realism in French Art” at the You and I Club to “Causes of the Civil War” at the Twenty-Second Avenue Club. Reflecting the reality of a segregated society, African American women, led by former Howard University professor Elizabeth Ensley, formed the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. By 1911, it counted thirty-three affiliates from Grand Junction to La Junta.
Most urban working women, enmeshed in an economy that afforded male laborers scant surplus and females even less, found the benefits of suffrage and the joys of club life elusive. Fortunate was the single woman bookkeeper in Colorado Springs who, because she lived at home for free, pocketed most of her eight-dollar weekly salary. More typical in 1900 were the many female laundry, factory, and mercantile workers whose wages—some as low as three dollars per week—were quickly spent on room and board. Asked if she was able to save any money, one stenographer replied, “about the cost of a funeral or a short spell of sickness.”
Marriage, Divorce, and Widows
Economic and social pressures caused most women to marry young and stay married. In 1910 more than 70 percent of women between ages twenty-five and forty-five in Denver and Pueblo were married; scarcely more than 1 percent were divorced. One divorcée, Emily French, whose husband left her after thirty-one years of marriage, kept a diary. It chronicles a stressful life, one typical of other women without husbands. On November 9, 1890, for example, she wrote, “I never combed my hair or sat down all day . . . I come unwell last night . . . I am so glad no more babies for me.”
Thousands of widows found themselves in similar difficult circumstances. Often their husbands had been able to save little money. A breadwinner’s death often left his wife to seek employment in a society that paid women poorly and offered them few respectable jobs. Some took in laundry; some did sewing; some set up boardinghouses. Many found it impossible to support their children. Joyce Goodfriend, in her study of Denver widows, told of “half-orphans,” the institutionalized children of impoverished women who could not keep them at home.
A few women—1 percent or less—turned to prostitution to make ends meet. As early as 1859 Libeus Barney, writing from Denver, reported, “There are few ladies here yet, but there are females of questionable morality about town.” By 1871, respectable Denver women were suggesting placing “fallen” women in private homes where they could be rehabilitated, but the Rocky Mountain News opposed the idea, fearing the scheme would corrupt other women. Largely unregulated in the late nineteenth century, prostitution was practiced along Denver’s Market Street, in Pueblo’s Precinct Eight, and in smaller demimonde districts throughout the state. Some women found release from lives of bondage, exploitation, and disease by overdosing on morphine.
The head of Denver’s Home of the Good Shepherd, a Roman Catholic refuge for 200 “wayward girls,” reported in the late 1880s that some Denver sex slaves were as young as ten. By 1912, tolerance of men who bought sex had declined in Denver, and Police Commissioner George Creel judged the time was right to clean up the city. Assisted by Josephine Roche, a Vassar graduate-turned-social worker, he reduced the number of Market Street prostitutes from 700 to 250.
Political infighting, however, soon checked Creel’s crusade. When Philip Van
Cise became Denver’s district attorney in 1921, he found the “row” still flourishing, although it was less blatant in its operation than before 1912; there remained some sixty houses in operation, along with prostitutes working in small downtown hotels.
The specter of prostitution haunted women anxious to exercise and expand their political rights. Journalists charged that Pueblo prostitutes were driven to the polls, where they were pressured into casting pro-police ballots. Despite the accusations that police and corporation chiefs were manipulating prostitutes and foreign women, support for women’s suffrage remained strong.
At the other end of the social scale were women such as Augusta Tabor, who was more adept at handling money than her ex-husband, the silver mining mogul Horace Tabor. Augusta Tabor was one of the state’s wealthiest citizens at the time of her death in 1895. Louise Hill, daughter-in-law of millionaire smelter magnate Nathaniel P. Hill, presided over Denver’s high society in the early twentieth century. Elizabeth Byers, wife of Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers, created orphanages and hospitals.
Margaret Tobin “Molly” Brown owed much of her fame to misfortune—she was on the Titanic when it sank on April 15, 1912. Put on the last lifeboat, she and fifteen others were rescued after hours adrift. Later, she organized help for poor widows who survived the disaster. Born in Missouri in 1867, she moved to Leadville in 1886, where she married James J. Brown, manager and part owner of a mine. The Browns moved to Denver in 1894 and bought a substantial home at 1340 Pennsylvania Street on Capitol Hill. Supposedly, Denver’s social leaders snubbed Margaret Brown because she was poorly educated, Irish, and Roman Catholic. She certainly never belonged to the Sacred 36 coterie of card players—Louise Hill and her friends at the pinnacle of Denver society. But her Titanic adventure, her flamboyance, and her flair for publicity ensured that she would be remembered long after Louise Hill was forgotten.
Adapted from Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State, 5th ed. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2013).