March is National Women’s History Month and the CSPM is proud to join organizations across the country in commemorations that examine the vital role of women in American History. For starters, our mini exhibit This Shall be the Land for Women: Examining Women’s Suffrage in Colorado highlights Colorado’s historic role in granting women the right to vote by popular referendum in 1893, a full 27 years before the federal amendment. This achievement is significant but not without controversy. The Colorado Territorial Legislature had an opportunity to grant women suffrage during the state’s constitutional convention in 1876, but they demurred. Instead, they conceded to women voting in local school district elections only. Additionally, they placed a measure on the ballot for voters not legislators to decide on women’s suffrage. With enormous opposition from saloon owners, church leaders and newspapers, the measure was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin.
In the following decades, both male and female suffrage activists across the state continued to advocate the issue. In Colorado Springs, Major Henry McAllister was on the Executive Committee of the state-wide Colorado Women’s Suffrage Society, and Mary Shields, a leader of the Colorado Women’s Christian Temperance Union were tireless. Additionally, Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the first female ordained minister in Colorado and founder of the original Unitarian Congregation in Colorado Springs, was also an outspoken advocate. Newspaper support in Colorado Springs was mixed, dependent on the editor and publisher at the time.
In 1893, another ballot measure was proposed. Colorado along with the rest of the nation was struggling to recover from the greatest economic downturn to date, the Panic of 1893. Across the state banks, businesses and mines were shuttered and thousands were out of work. With $25 dollars in the bank and only 28 members, the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association organized a grassroots campaign with a powerful strategy. They would win the vote with four Ps: Populism, Press, Pulpit and Prohibition. Two key leaders of this campaign were Elizabeth Piper Ensley, an African-American educator and community leader, and Ellis Meredith, a Denver-based journalist often called the “Susan B. Anthony of Colorado.”
By appealing to laborers out of work, women’s suffrage proponents offered a solution to working-class economic woes by doubling the power of the Populist voice in Colorado. Additionally, suffrage activists sought to outmaneuver alcohol & saloon interests through a quick-moving, ambitious campaign. They also made personal contacts with clergyman and newspaper publishers a priority, seeking assurances that if those in the pulpit and press could not endorse women’s suffrage – they would at least not vocally oppose it. And their work paid off – they received support from approximately 75% of newspapers in Colorado. The Colorado Springs Gazette was a notable exception.
The results of the 1893 election were: 35,698 votes in favor of women’s suffrage, 29,461 against. On November 15, 1893, Denver publisher Caroline Churchill proclaimed in her newspaper the Queen Bee, “Come ye disconsolates wherever you languish, come to Colorado and cast in your lot, here the sun shines brightest and there is hope for all women. Come ye sinners poor and needy, come to Colorado now, this shall be the land for women, this shall be the land I trow.”
After gaining suffrage in 1893, Colorado women did not rest. They advocated for their sisters, mothers, daughters and friends in other states. Leaders from our community such as Lillian Kerr and Bertha Fowler were deeply involved in the National Woman’s Party which had its state headquarters not in Denver, but on North Tejon Street in Colorado Springs.
Most importantly, Dr. Caroline Spencer, Natalie Gray, and Berthe Arnold were all local women who sacrificed their physical and mental wellbeing to protest in Washington D.C. for a federal amendment to the Constitution. Women protesters were routinely harassed by violent mobs, and imprisoned for days or weeks at a time at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Finally, after five decades of struggle, Colorado suffrage activists celebrated with others across the country when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August 1920.
Despite this great victory, the campaign for equal suffrage continued throughout the twentieth century. In 1924, American Indian women received citizenship and suffrage, in 1952, Asian-American women’s suffrage was finally guaranteed, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to remove barriers such as poll taxes, literacy tests and “grandfather clauses” that prohibited African-American women’s voting rights. Given the history of the struggle and sacrifice for equal suffrage in the United States – the right to vote should never be taken for granted.