Colorado’s legacy of women’s suffrage
The Centennial State wasn't the first to allow women to vote, but it was a national leader. Here's what Colorado's voting history tells us about America then — and now.
One hundred years ago, suffragists were engaged in a mad dash to register women across the country to vote in the 1920 U.S. presidential election – except in Colorado.
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution legally guaranteeing women the right to vote had been ratified Aug. 18, 1920, providing a narrow nine-week window to register newly enfranchised voters for the election pitting Republican Warren G. Harding against Democrat James M. Cox.
In Colorado, however, women had enjoyed the right to vote since 1893, when it became the first state to grant women’s suffrage by popular referendum. In fact, women weren’t just registered and voting in the state but were running for office and serving in the Colorado General Assembly as early as 1894.
But just because the Centennial State was 27 years ahead of history doesn’t mean it was immune from the racism, classism and xenophobia that shaped the women’s suffrage movement, according to Colorado historians.
Proponents in the West partly viewed the right to vote as a way to attract more women — white women — to live in the Western states and territories, where they were desired to help “civilize” the area with “women’s higher sense of morality,” as it was perceived in “the understanding of the genders of the time,” said Shelby Balik, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“Really, when offering women the right to vote, they were thinking of white women,” she said.
The first efforts to provide Colorado women with equal voting rights failed. Attempts to pass women’s suffrage bills through the territorial legislatures in 1868 and 1870 were unsuccessful. An effort to include women’s suffrage in the state Constitution was rejected in 1876 for fear it would be considered too radical. Then in 1877, a year after Colorado was granted statehood, an all-male electorate struck down a suffrage referendum backed by Gov. John Routt.
As a prominent leader within the national women’s suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony had campaigned hard in Colorado, and the 1877 loss angered her, said Stephen Leonard, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of History at MSU Denver. “She said at one point that she wouldn’t come back.”
Anthony blamed the loss in part on the Mexican culture prevalent in Colorado’s southern counties, an attitude that foreshadowed one of the national women’s suffrage movement’s central strategies.
Fast-forward 15 years, and out of the entire U.S., only the women of Wyoming had the right to vote. Its 1869 territorial Constitution had guaranteed it, and Congress had allowed it to stand when Wyoming applied for statehood in 1890.
It was one sign to Colorado’s women that the frontier was ripe for another suffrage effort. The other was the rise of a new political party dubbed the Populists.
The Populists had gained power, Leonard said, and their Colorado leader Davis Waite supported women’s suffrage.
Anthony had doubted that the Colorado women would succeed in 1893 and did not come to the state that year, which “was probably a plus,” Leonard said. “It would have alerted opponents to the fact that the measure might pass.”
Opponents, meanwhile, comprised an array of special interests ranging from traditional religious groups to brewers and saloon owners; the latter worried that women would vote to restrict alcohol sales.
“In that, they were correct,” Leonard said. “The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was already very active in the state.”
Nevertheless, aided by national organizer Carrie Chapman Catt, local women such as Black activist Elizabeth Ensley and journalist Ellis Meredith mounted a grassroots campaign that pitched “equal suffrage” that made Colorado the second state to allow women’s suffrage and the first to do so by a popular vote on that issue alone.
It happened 27 years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution technically granted women citizens in all states the right to vote, and it enfranchised 10 times more women than had been able to vote in federal elections up to that point.
Voter suppression then and now
The 1893 suffrage question that had “failed pretty dramatically” 16 years earlier “passed pretty solidly,” Balik said.
Why? Beyond the desire to attract women to the frontier, a central issue for suffragettes was one that reverberates to this day: immigration.
“Around the country, there was discomfort with immigration, and many women’s suffrage activists shared that idea,” Balik said.
The idea was that women could help “cancel out the immigrant vote,” she said.
Even in Colorado, where a black woman fought for voting rights alongside white women, “equal” was still a misnomer: Like elsewhere, people from Native American tribes couldn’t vote at all and significant hurdles remained in place for people of color.
Their votes are some of those still being suppressed today.
“Technically, every citizen who registers to vote should have the right to vote. But take a look at where most of the voting restrictions are being passed,” Balik said, referring to where polling places are being closed, mailboxes are being taken away and voting districts are the targets of gerrymandering.
“It’s absolutely the case that there are efforts underway to discourage nonwhite voters, including Native American voters, Latino voters, Black voters and other populations likely to vote Democratic,” she said.
Now, amid murmurs of reintroducing a property requirement to vote or of requiring voters to prove they paid taxes, Balik noticed that an anti-abortion speaker featured at the Republican National Convention had recently promoted an idea that could start to negate women’s suffrage: the idea of allowing only one vote per household.
“I thought that went away,” Balik said. “It did not.”