By Beth Dodd
Women in Colorado were able to vote 27 years earlier than most of the other women in the country. The early success of women voters here inspired suffragists across the nation as they fought to win all women the right to vote. They finally succeeded in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The first official national woman’s suffrage organizations were started in 1869, but they were not unified. One group led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wasted years in bitter rivalry with another group led by Lucy Stone before the two merged in 1890. The combined group became the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) with Anthony in charge.
The first tactic tried by the suffragists was to try to get the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that women had a constitutional right to vote. In the early 1870s, some women tried to vote and then filed lawsuits when they were turned away. Anthony succeeded in voting in 1872, but was arrested and found guilty in a widely publicized trial that electrified the country.
After the Supreme Court ruled against them in 1875, suffragists began campaigning for a voting amendment in the U.S. Constitution. However, much of the movement’s efforts were made on a state-by-state basis.
Against this backdrop, the Territorial Legislature of Colorado considered the matter of equal suffrage for women for the first time in 1868, just as the first national suffragist organizations were getting organized. Although this early effort was supported by the leading politicians of the day, it did not pass.
When the Wyoming Territory gave its women the right to vote in 1869, hopes for suffrage were high in neighboring Colorado. But nothing further was accomplished until 1876, when the territory became a state. The option to approve women’s suffrage through a popular vote was written into Colorado’s state constitution. In other words, the men of Colorado could vote to allow the ladies to vote.
The second attempt to pass a women’s suffrage law in Colorado was made the next year in 1877. When the newly established Colorado Legislature referred the issue to the voters, Susan B. Anthony herself made a whirlwind tour of the state to rally support. She was booed out of mining-town saloons by unsympathetic gold seekers. The 1877 referendum was defeated by a vote of 14,053 to 6,612.
In spite of this defeat, the fight for the women’s vote in Colorado continued. Activist Elizabeth Ensley rallied African American male support in the cities, while grange women organized farmers on the eastern pains. In 1879, Caroline Churchill began publishing the suffrage newspaper, The Colorado Antelope, later called The Queen Bee. Journalist Ellis Meredith organized the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association in 1890, a grassroots coalition of women’s organizations, churches, political parties, charity groups, unions and farmer’s alliances. In 1892, People’s Party candidate Davis Waite was elected governor with a pro-suffrage platform.
The pro-suffrage camp claimed that working people’s needs, especially those of women and children, were being ignored by mainstream politicians. Women voters, they felt, might fix inadequate schools, squalid housing and working conditions, and clean up Colorado’s dirty politics.
In the general election of 1893, the issue was put before the all male voters of Colorado once again. The suffragists opened a campaign headquarters in the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver in rooms donated by Baby Doe Tabor. The state was flooded with campaign literature. The press and both political parties backed the movement.
Not everyone was enthusiastic however. Brewers, saloon owners, and their patrons were opposed to women voting. Colorado’s many bar girls and prostitutes campaigned to persuade them to vote yes.
One popular campaign slogan from the period read, “Let the women vote! They can’t do any worse than the men have!” At the time, the nation was in the grip of its worst economic depression to date, the Panic of 1893.
By that time, suffragists had built a formidable network of support for women’s right to vote. Door-to-door campaigning, leafleting, speaking tours and letter-writing campaigns coincided with women’s relief efforts to help the thousands of unemployed and homeless workers in Denver and in mining towns across the state.
When Election Day came on November 7, 1893, the majority of Colorado males approved. Fifty-five percent of voters cast their ballots. The election returns were 35,698 votes for and 29,461 against. It was the first time in U.S. history that a state referendum had passed women’s suffrage into law.
Mrs. John L. Routt, the wife of the first state governor, was the first woman to register to vote. In 1894, the same year that Cripple’s Creek’s miners were striking for an 8 hour day, Colorado’s newly enfranchised women helped elect the nation’s first three female state legislators, Clara Cressingham and Frances Klock of Denver, and Carrie Holly of Pueblo.
The legacy of early women’s suffrage in the Colorado is still apparent today. In 2012, Colorado had the highest number of women in its state legislature of any state in the country with 17 state senators and 23 state house representatives.