published: December 2019

Colorado was the first state to give women full suffrage

The Year of the Women December 1919

Every month we are following the ratification of the 19th Amendment and considering women’s issues then and now. In December of 1919 North Dakota, South Dakota and Colorado voted for ratification. Now the suffragettes had a total of 22 states signed on with 14 left to go.

Colorado was the 22nd state to ratify the 19th Amendment; however, it was the first state to give women full voting rights. On November 7, 1893, Colorado—27 years before national suffrage became law in 1920—the women of our state won an astounding victory.

Women had been enfranchised in the territories of Wyoming in 1869 and Utah in 1870, but this was done by legislative action. The women of those territories only had to convince a small, elite group of men to secure the franchise. In Colorado, they had to convince the majority of the state’s men.

The women fought long and hard to secure the vote. Sixteen years earlier, their first bid at enfranchisement failed. However, on that ballot in 1876, they won two small, but important, victories. They succeeded in getting an amendment to the Colorado Constitution, which allowed women’s suffrage to become state law through a simple majority vote on the part of the legislators and the electorate rather than through constitutional amendment which required a 2/3rds majority. On that same ballot, they also won the right for women to vote in school elections, which they used to their advantage in campaigning for the 1893 election.

In the 16 years between elections, the suffragettes became very politically savvy and creative in their organizing, public relations and advertising strategies. One strategy was to get women to use the voting rights they already had to prove that they did want, and would use, these rights. Just months before the 1893 referendum, they mobilized women to to get out and vote in the Denver School Board election, and largely through their efforts, they elected the first woman to that board, T. Hanna.

In part, they accomplished this by grassroots organizing, and by the time of the election they had established 60 chapters in their suffrage association. They also learned the value of creating coalitions with a diverse group of organizations. These included the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Grange (a farmers group), the Farmers’ Alliance, and the Knights of Labor. Further, they enlisted white and black clubwomen, male and female journalists, and members of the People’s Party to join their cause.

Ellis Meredith, Minnie J. Reynolds, and Caroline Nichols Churchill, journalists in the movement, conceived the idea of sending postcards to newspaper editors encouraging them to commit to women’s suffrage. This proved to be a successful strategy.

But perhaps the alliance that served them the best was with The People’s Party, a populist third party created in 1892 by laboring people, miners, farmers, and factory workers who felt the economic structure of the United States was stacked against them in favor of the wealthy. The party didn’t last long and was dissolved by 1900; however, it enjoyed a surge of success in the Colorado election of 1892. Davis H. Waite, a populist, was elected Governor along with populist congressmen. They introduced the 1893 suffrage bill in the Colorado legislature and passed an act to submit it to the voter at the general election in 1893. It was passed by a 55% majority.

Interestingly, the suffragettes advanced two different arguments for their cause. They embraced both as compatible and continued to promote both throughout their campaign.  One argument was based on equality, that women were the political equals of men and were entitled to the franchise. The other was that women are different from men. That their roles as mothers and housekeepers would allow them to extend their caretaking responsibilities beyond the home and that they would use their vote to reform society. Their national counterparts had embraced these different philosophies as well, but chose one, equality, and let go of the other.

A century later, these persistent, resourceful, creative and wise Colorado women are an inspiration and a role model for us all.