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TCL > May 2003 Issue > Law and Equity in Colorado’s Nineteenth Century Suffrage Movement

May 2003       Vol. 32, No. 5       Page  43
Historical Perspectives

Law and Equity in Colorado’s Nineteenth Century Suffrage Movement
by Tom I. Romero, II

This historical perspective was written by Tom I. Romero II, Western Legal Studies Fellow, University of Colorado-Boulder:

Ellis Meredith was an optimistic and forward-looking woman. Described by one historian as “educated, egalitarian, and entrepreneurial,” Meredith represented the type of activist who could appeal to a broad cross-section of the electorate. [Marilley, Women Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1996) at 132.] In August 1893, however, Meredith was beginning to have her doubts about the possibility of women gaining the vote in Colorado.

In a letter to nationally known suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Meredith articulated her concerns about anti-suffrage materials characterizing women voters as uneducated and ill informed. In response to such caricatures, Meredith responded: “We . . . are pushing our claims for suffrage simply and solely on the grounds of right and justice. Whether we use the ballot for ‘a bonnet or a bustle’ . . . it is no one’s business” (emphasis added). [Ellis Meredith Collection, MSS #427, Box 1, FF 5, Stephen H. Hart Library, Colorado Historical Society, Denver, CO.] Indeed, for suffragists like Meredith, the meaning of the phrase “right and justice” was at the heart of legal and political equality they sought in the women’s suffrage movement.

First advocated by Territorial Governor Edward McCook and his wife in 1870, the right to vote finally was extended to women in Colorado on November 7, 1893. Colorado thus became the second state in the Union, after Wyoming, to extend the franchise to women. To be sure, until 1911 when California extended its suffrage laws, Colorado boasted the largest city (Denver) in the nation allowing women to vote.

In the late nineteenth-century struggle to secure voting rights, Colorado and national suffragists articulated an ambivalent conception of law and equity. Suffragists first targeted Colorado after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1874 that the U.S. Constitution neither extended nor prohibited suffrage to women. Accordingly, the Court left it up to individual states to determine the parameters of who would and would not be extended full political citizenship. [Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1874).]

The movement to end Colorado’s territorial status in 1875 and 1876 provided the first significant opportunity to inscribe gender equality into a state constitution. Indeed, the National American Woman Suffrage Association saw a certain symmetry and, in turn, symbolism in Colorado’s admittance to the Union as a full and equal partner when “they advanced a ‘free-women-on-the anniversary-of-men’s freedom’ plea.” [Faherty, “Regional Minorities and the Women Suffrage Struggle,” 33 Colorado Magazine 214 (July 1956).]

However, these early efforts to extend women the franchise pitted the rights of women against those of other minorities in the state. In 1866, William Byers, publisher and editor of the Rocky Mountain News, argued in an editorial that white women deserved the vote more than the nation’s recently emancipated African Americans. [Rocky Mountain News (Jan. 31, 1866).]  Then, during the 1876 Constitutional Convention, national suffragists blamed “the Mexican vote” for the failure of men to grant the franchise to women in an 1877 general election, even though Agapita Vigil, a Spanish-speaking legislator representing Huerfano and Las Animas, was a vocal and active supporter of women’s suffrage. [See Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony et al., IV The History of Women’s Suffrage (Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1887) at 317.]

By the 1890s, Colorado suffragists realized the importance of building coalitions. They galvanized the support of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Young Women’s Christian Association, the Grange Movement, and the Populists, as well as the support of more than thirty-three newspapers across the state. Like the 1877 election, the issue of U.S. nativity played a role as Colorado citizens feared the influx of foreign immigrants to Colorado and their potential political influence in the state’s urban enclaves. According to one historian, “by enfranchising women, natives gained more ballots than did the foreign-born.” [Leonard, “Bristling for their Rights: Colorado’s Women and the Mandate of 1893,” Colorado Heritage 12 (Spring 1993).]  

It has been 110 years since Colorado men extended the franchise to women. Nevertheless, full inclusion of women into Colorado’s public life continues to evolve. It was not until 1944 that Colorado voters amended the Constitution, officially allowing women to sit on a jury. As late as the 1990s, gender bias remained prominent in the state’s judicial administration. [See Tamblyn and Wood, “Final Report, Colorado Supreme Court Task Force on Gender Bias in the Courts” (Denver, CO: Office of the State Court Administrator, 1990).] Today, the wages of women still lag behind those of men for similar work. Although suffragists secured one aspect of the battle for “right and justice” in 1893, the march toward equity continues.

The movement to extend women the right to vote in Colorado has long fascinated historians.  Barnes Jensen in “Let the Women Vote,” Colorado Magazine 42 (Winter 1964) and “Colorado Women’s Suffrage Campaigns of the 1870s,” Journal of the West (April 1973) remain the best academic resources on Colorado’s suffrage campaigns. The role of the Colorado Bar in the 1893 suffrage campaign is suggested in Bohning, “Six of the Greatest: Jared Warner Mills” 29 The Colorado Lawyer 5 (July 2000) at 8. For primary research into the sources of Colorado’s suffrage movement, see Goldstein and Hunt, “From Suffrage to Centennial: A Research Guide to Colorado and National Women’s Suffrage Sources,” Colorado Heritage (Spring 1993). Among the collections that Goldstein and Hunt document is the voluminous Ellis Meredith Collection located at the Colorado Historical Society, Denver, CO.

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