The women’s suffrage movement was a sociopolitical movement in the late nineteenth century that secured voting rights for Colorado women by state referendum in 1893. The movement’s success made Colorado the first state to enact women’s suffrage by popular referendum.
On July 4, 1876, Denverites gathered to celebrate the nation’s centennial. On the banks of the South Platte they watched a parade of the Knights of Pythias, the Governor’s Guard, and the Odd Fellows astride their milk-white horses. They listened to toasts, including one to “Woman—the last and best gift of God to man . . . May there yet be had a fuller recognition of her social influence, her legal identity and her political rights.”
But securing women’s political rights took more than Fourth of July rhetoric. In 1870 territorial governor Edward McCook urged lawmakers to follow Wyoming’s lead and grant women the vote. Legislators rejected the notion. During the 1875–76 convention to draft a state constitution, delegates Henry P. Bromwell of Denver and Agapito Vigil, representing Huerfano and Las Animas Counties, wanted to include equal suffrage in the constitution, but they were outvoted by their fellow delegates.
Referendum of 1877
As a consolation prize, the constitution makers allowed women to vote in school elections and provided that men would hold an 1877 referendum to determine if women would be given full suffrage. Seizing the referendum opportunity, national suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony; Lucy Stone; Stone’s husband, Henry B. Blackwell; Matilda Hindman; and Margaret W. Campbell joined local suffrage partisans to barnstorm the state in September 1877. In Denver they enjoyed the backing of former territorial governor John Evans.
By railroad and stagecoach they reached remote places such as Lake City in the San Juan Mountains, where Anthony spoke on a moonlit night under the pine trees because the crowd was too large to be seated indoors. Curious crowds did not signal victory for equal suffrage, however, as the referendum was defeated by a margin of two to one in early October. Most Hispanos in southern counties opposed women voting, as did men in Denver and mountain mining towns. Dismissed as “bawling, ranting women, bristling for their rights” by Presbyterian preacher Rev. Thomas Bliss, women found that most Colorado men held fast to the past.
Sixteen years later, in 1893, a handful of reformers—the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association—sensed the time was right for another campaign. Women in southern Colorado were threatening to run their anti-suffrage state senator out of the region. Populist governor Davis Waite endorsed suffrage, as did former governor John Routt, a Republican. The opposition saloonkeepers and brewers, who feared women voters would crack down on liquor, were not taking the suffrage campaign seriously and mounted little opposition.
A referendum granting equal suffrage was drafted by a male lawyer from Denver and sponsored by Rep. J. T. Heath of Montrose County. Thirty-three newspapers surveyed approved of suffrage; only eleven were opposed. Thomas Patterson, publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, opposed women’s suffrage, but his paper was officially neutral. Two of the paper’s columnists, Ellis Meredith and Minnie J. Reynolds, were vocal suffragettes who helped organize the 1893 campaign.
Advantages and Victory
Underpinning the pro-suffrage alliance of the late nineteenth century were larger forces working in the women’s favor. The first was the Hispano factor. Hispano men largely did not support voting rights for women and were part of the reason why the 1877 referendum failed. But by 1890, they constituted a smaller percentage of the state’s population, giving the pro-suffrage camp an advantage. Second, more than 70 percent of Colorado’s females over age nineteen were married; less than 20 percent were single or divorced. If enfranchised, this stable domestic contingent would constitute less than 30 percent of the electorate, so men were not courting political suicide by approving equal suffrage. Additionally, in an era of immigration that produced ethnic tension in many mining camps and towns, immigrant-wary Coloradans may have recognized that enfranchising women would give native-born residents more ballots than foreigners.
The suffrage campaign also benefited from the journalistic talents of Reynolds and novelist Patience Stapleton. Grand Junction’s Dr. Ethel Strasser, Colorado Springs’s Dr. Anna Chamberlain, and Dr. Jessie Hartwell of Salida joined Denver teacher and president of the Equal Suffrage Association Martha A. Pease in the effort to convince men that women were intellectually capable and deserved the vote. Socialites such as Mrs. Nathaniel P. Hill, wife of the Denver smelter magnate, and Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor, wife of “Silver King” Horace Tabor, lent names and office space. In the end, careful planning and a low-key campaign yielded a 6,000-vote margin for equal suffrage, making Colorado the first state to enact equal suffrage by referendum.
Campaign against Alcohol
For women, equal suffrage did not result in equal political power, however. Despite token female representation starting in 1894, the general assembly was almost totally controlled by men, who always elected men to the US Senate. Men manipulated the political levers and only grudgingly let women have a small share of legislative seats and other posts. Yet women made a mark, especially in their crusade against alcohol. In 1907 the state granted local governments the authority to prohibit liquor sales. In 1916, after prohibitionists won a statewide vote against booze, Colorado became a dry state three years ahead of the rest of the nation.
In 1912 Edward Taylor told his colleagues in the US Congress that women had helped enact more than 150 statutes, ranging from an 1899 law making the white and lavender-blue columbine the state flower to a 1908 measure prohibiting the display of anarchistic flags. Much of the legislation Taylor cited was designed to protect women and children; for example, pimps were barred from taking their prostitutes’ profits. A law setting up a model juvenile court was passed. Wives were permitted to homestead property and accorded rights as household heads if they provided the family’s chief support. Clearly, Colorado women’s hard-won right to the ballot was already paying dividends for the people of the Centennial State and would continue to do so through the present.
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).