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Politics / Colorado Edition

Colorado Ratified Women's Right To Vote Ahead Of The Nation — And That Was Just The Beginning

Jim Hill

The nation is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which secured the right to vote for women in the U.S. But in Colorado, women’s suffrage was accomplished 27 years earlier. Since that historic vote in 1893, Colorado has been a national leader, not only in giving women the right to participate in elections, but also in electing women to the state legislature.

Laura Hoeppner is a documentary filmmaker and Meg Froelich is a Colorado state representative from the Denver metro area. The two produced the documentary "Strong Sisters: Elected Women in Colorado." They spoke to KUNC’s Colorado Edition about the state’s early history of electing women to state office.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Colorado was the first state to secure the right to vote for women — not by an act of the legislature, but by popular vote — in 1893. Why was the state so willing to entertain the idea when much of the rest of country wasn’t ready for it?

Laura Hoeppner: One of the one of the things we found in our interviews with former elected women, and current elected women is that quite often when you have a crisis of some kind — so in 1893, it was the silver crisis and the economic depression here in Colorado — it provides opportunities for people who might not be in power to slowly gain power. And so the people who were affected by the economic crisis, the miners and their families, were more willing to look at somebody new and fresh and let them have a chance because what did they have to lose? They decided to vote for women to be able to have the right to vote.

The other thing that happened was the suffragists took advantage of the opportunity when they at first thought, well, this is not the time to seek out the right to vote because of this crisis, but then they figured out that while they were serving soup in the soup kitchens and handing out blankets in the tent colonies that had formed in Denver from the miners coming out of the mountains, they also handed them a brochure. And we heard from a historian that they used that opportunity to say, “Hey, give us the right to vote. Let it let us participate politically.”

Meg Froelich: We see a common theme emerging related to women and politics, which is the idea that women are, in some ways, morally superior. And it's linked to this mythology around home and hearth. So when you have a crisis, like we had with the silver crisis and the ensuing economic depression, the case was made that women will come and clean up the situation (and) clean up politics; and we see this repeated over and over again, all the way into the 20th century when you see the call to send housewives to Congress.

Very soon after women could vote in Colorado, they started voting for other women to hold political office. What should we know about those early women legislators?

Froelich: Once gaining the right to vote in 1893, we promptly elected three women in 1894: Clara Cressingham, Francis Klock and Carrie Clyde Holly. And when they took office, they were the first three women as far as we know, in any parliamentary body in the world. So Colorado was a true changemaker at that point. These women had concerns about the language used on the floor and lobbyists’ easy access to the floor. And the laws that they passed were the first laws passed by any women in America. Those really were change-making and progressive in the sense of forward thinking and bringing a new voice to issues that just simply weren't discussed previously in the legislature.

And what were they focused on?

Froelich: One of the issues that they worked on was age of consent for women. They raised it from the age of 16 to 18. Another issue that they worked on, I believe was the sugar beet farming, trying to promote sugar beet farming in Colorado. So it's interesting because you'll find with all the women throughout history, sometimes they're focused on things that are sort of considered part of the women's world: education issues, children's labor, children's rights, youth, criminal laws, things like that. But they also were working on things that had to do with the economy, labor rights. The women were very active during the Ludlow massacre, trying to get the governor and the U.S. government to do something to protect the workers in that area during the Ludlow massacre with the miners there. So, they covered all kinds of issues.

When did Colorado begin to see women of color elected to office?

Hoeppner: You don't see women of color being elected to political office until the 1970s. And then we see Betty Benavidez, who was the first Latina elected in Colorado, and Arie Taylor, who was the first African American woman elected to serve — both of them serving in the statehouse.

Why do you feel it’s important for women to be elected to positions of power?

Froelich: One of the central questions we ask in our documentary is, "What difference does it make to have elected women?" Of course, we came to the conclusion it makes all the difference in the world. It does a couple things, one of which is representation; you can't be what you can't see. So it's inspiring for other women. But it's also important, generally, for democracy, for the legislature, to look like the state. So we need to have genders represented, we need to have all different kinds of backgrounds and occupations. And of course, we want people from all sorts of different communities.

And, that life experience brought to the legislature by a diverse group of people leads to a diverse set of issues that are addressed, and the agendas unfold from the life experience that people bring to the legislature. So you may be in agreement with something that you haven't ever experienced; you just didn't think about a law being needed because of that certain experience. Once that experience is presented to you and the law is proposed, you might be excited to go along with it. So we didn't we don't see women bringing things that need opposition necessarily. It's just that they bring things that maybe weren't thought of before.

As you worked on the documentary, were there any stories of women legislators in Colorado, past or present, that really stood out?

Froelich: Colorado has a wonderful history of women in the legislature. And I think we're learning more about the women that we produced and then sent out into America. We hear stories about Helen Robinson, who was our first female state senator, being an ambassador for women's suffrage. The message that these women carried across the nation was, “Look, we did it in Colorado and the world didn't come to an end. Give women the right to vote and the world goes on, and perhaps even is improved.”

So we're learning more about these folks and we have an early pioneering suffragette Bertha Pitts Campbell, who was the valedictorian of her class in Montrose, and then turned down a scholarship at Colorado College, and went to off to go to Howard instead. And there she became one of the founders of Delta Sigma Theta, which we're learning more and more about around this anniversary of our 100th anniversary of the right to vote, about the incredible role that Delta Sigma Theta played. And of course, we have our vice-presidential candidate, very much a part of historical Black universities and very much a part of her sorority.

Hoeppner: One of our favorite stories is about Agnes Riddle, who was serving in the statehouse in 1910 to 1914 and then went over to the Senate in 1916. She was the first woman to have served in both chambers, and while she was serving the one of the members of the House was carrying a bill to limit the movement of women out in and out of a red-light district. They wanted to recreate a red-light district in Denver. And women who were in that district after a certain hour would have to stay there all night and women who were outside of it weren't allowed to go in — so limiting their free movement. And everyone expected the bill to pass.

And Agnes Riddle, who was at that time, I think, the only woman in the statehouse, stood up, went to the front to the podium. She was a German dairy farmer. So, she rolls up her shirt sleeves and stands there with her hands on her hips and says, “Think of the women. You're talking about your own family members not being able to move freely. And I will vote for this if you create a red-light district for men, and men won't be able to move freely. And then which of you would not be able to move freely?”

So she sort of challenged them. And the men were horrified that she would address such an unseemly issue. And the bill failed. The only person who voted for it was the member carrying the bill. And the story goes, according to a suffragist newsletter from the U.K., that the next day her desk was piled high with flowers and chocolates from the men who appreciated that she reminded them that we're talking about people here, and that we need to think of the women. That's one of my favorite stories happening in the very early 20th century, and showing how important it is to have that one voice that will speak up.

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