Why Did Colorado Suffragists Fail to Win the Right to Vote in 1877,
but Succeed in 1893?
"Colorado Women are Citizens," circa 1910-1920.
Photo courtesy of the Western History/Genealogy Department,
Denver Public Library.
Documents selected and interpreted by
Jennifer Frost, with Leslie Chomic, Marcia Goldstein, Rebecca Hunt,
Heidi Voehringer, and the Colorado Coalition for Women's History
University of Northern Colorado
Supported in part by:
the Colorado Endowment for the
Humanities and the Hewitt Institute for
History and Social Science Education
“Western Women Wild With Joy Over Colorado’s Election,” journalist and suffragist Caroline Nichols Churchill exclaimed, following the victory for woman suffrage at the polls in Colorado on November 7, 1893. This success was no small achievement. Unlike winning the right to vote through legislative action--as happened in the territories of Wyoming in 1869 and Utah in 1870--Colorado suffragists needed the support of male voters to secure the franchise. They had to convince a majority of men in the state, not just legislators--a smaller and often more elite group of men--that they should share political power with women. Sixteen years earlier, in 1877, when the question of woman suffrage was first put before Colorado voters, they had failed to do so. In fact, of 480 campaigns to put votes for women on the ballot of various states in the nineteenth century, only seventeen actually reached the ballot, and a mere two, in Colorado in 1893 and Idaho in 1896, met with success. The victory that western women were “wild with joy over” made Colorado the first state to enfranchise women through popular referendum, and it happened over a quarter of a century before the achievement of national women’s suffrage in 1920. Why were women in the state of Colorado able to win this early, significant, and surprising suffrage victory? And why in 1893 and not 1877?
Over the years, historians have offered various answers to this question. Earlier explanations of why women first gained the right to vote in the western states like Colorado drew upon the popular “myth of the frontier,” which held that the West was a place where freedom, independence, and democracy reigned. In this view, the voting franchise naturally extended to western women. Later interpretations contended that political leaders in the West granted woman suffrage to enhance the image of their states or territories and encourage white women--always in short supply in the frontier West--to come and settle. Newer historiographical approaches, however, recognize that woman suffrage did not just “happen,” men did not simply “give” women the right to vote, and although there were factors that facilitated the achievement of woman suffrage in the American West, it was not a guarantee. Instead, woman suffrage was won only after decades of political work and organizing by suffragist activists and occurred within very specific local and historical contexts. That understanding shapes this project’s focus on the achievement of Colorado suffrage in 1893.
Laying the foundation for Colorado’s suffrage success was a provision in the state’s 1876 constitution. Article 7, Section 2 allowed woman suffrage to become state law through a simple majority vote on the part of legislators and the electorate rather than through a constitutional amendment, which would have required a two-thirds majority. The suffrage bill that eventually became law in 1893 was written according to this provision (see documents 13 and 26). The inclusion of this provision in the Colorado Constitution was due to the efforts of suffrage advocates in 1876. Although they failed to secure their ultimate goal--full female enfranchisement--they did get Article 7, Section 2, as well as school suffrage for women (see documents 1 and 2). As it turned out, Colorado suffragists achieved their goal in 1893 with 55% of the vote; they would have needed 66% with a constitutional amendment (see document 23).
Although Article 7, Section 2 provided an opportunity for Colorado suffragists, they still had to make it happen, and they did so by building a strong and diverse political coalition aimed at winning votes for women. Although they put up a good fight during the 1877 referendum campaign, suffragists in the new State of Colorado had only established their Colorado Woman Suffrage Association the year before and did not have a broad base of organized support upon which to draw. Instead, they relied upon the efforts of a relatively small group of activists, including prominent national suffrage leaders and organizers--which did not go over so well with local Coloradans (see documents 2 and 5). After the failure of the 1877 referendum (see document 6), Colorado suffragists learned the importance and necessity of political coalition and, when the 1893 referendum loomed, set out to build one. Sixteen years made a big difference. By then, organized support for woman suffrage existed among temperance advocates in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (see documents 8, 10, and 12), among farmers in the Grange, Farmers’ Alliance, and the Populist Party (see documents 4 and 11), among workers in the Knights of Labor and other unions (see documents 16 and 17), among white and Black clubwomen (see documents 27), among male and female journalists (see documents 9, 14, 15, 19, and 28), and in the political parties (see documents 11, 12, and 26).
This last element of the Colorado suffrage coalition--the political parties--cannot be underestimated. National suffrage leader Henry Blackwell pinpointed the lack of party support in the 1877 referendum campaign as the main reason for failure that year (see document 7). Meanwhile, political gains by the Colorado People’s, or Populist, Party, in 1892, including the election of Governor Davis H. Waite, set the political context for a suffrage victory in 1893. The surge in support for the Populists and their agenda of reform upset the balance of power between the two traditional parties--the Republicans and the Democrats--and made the Republicans more open to female enfranchisement. For Populists, like Waite, extending the right to vote to women was both consistent with political principle and served the end of practical politics. After all, the People’s Party was committed to “equal rights for all, and special privileges to none,” yet enfranchising women also would be one way for the new party to increase the size of their loyal electorate. In the end, Republicans divided over woman suffrage (see documents 13 and 23), and it was the Populists who provided a forum for suffragists within their ranks (see document 11), introduced the 1893 suffrage bill in the Colorado legislature (see document 13), and proclaimed it law (see document 26). Although they officially called themselves “non-partisan,” suffragists knew their constituency: voters and leaders in the Populist and Republican parties (see document 21).
This political context for Colorado’s suffrage victory was reinforced by dramatic economic and social developments in 1893. The combination of the repeal of the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the financial Panic of 1893, and subsequent depression sent Colorado’s economy into a tailspin. “Suddenly Coloradans saw their silver mines and smelters close, banks enter receivership, and 25 percent unemployment.” Colorado suffragists shared the distress and anxiety felt by the rest of the citizens of their state (see documents 14 and 15), and this new situation shaped their referendum campaign. Some believed it heightened interest in and support for their effort (see document 15). It certainly meant they struggled with fund-raising throughout the year. They began their campaign with only $25 in the treasury of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association of Colorado and never were financially secure (see document 17). They also fashioned their appeal for votes according to recent developments, linking woman suffrage to broader economic and social conditions--but then so did their opponents (see documents 19 and 20). In the end, the dire circumstances of 1893--a state of affairs that did not exist in 1877--propelled male voters to explore alternatives to “politics as usual,” including Populism and woman suffrage.
Within this context, Colorado suffragists advanced arguments for their cause. Like their colleagues in the national suffrage movement, they made two different arguments for suffrage. One argument was based on the idea of equality, that women are equal to men, while the second argument was based on the idea of difference, that women are different from men (see documents 1, 2, 3, 9, 14, 20, 21, and 22). In making the equality argument, suffragists claimed that women were the political equals of men and were entitled to the franchise; woman suffrage also fit within and extended the American political tradition of equality and democracy. In making the difference argument, they focused on how women’s difference from men--their roles as mothers and housekeepers--made them deserving of voting rights; woman suffrage would allow women to extend their caretaking responsibilities beyond the home and use their vote to reform society. In contrast to what happened at the national level, suffrage activists in Colorado--due to their early success--never shifted their emphasis over time, from the equality to the difference argument; indeed, in 1890, they used “equal suffrage” in the name of their new organization. Colorado suffragists never saw the equality and difference arguments as contradictory or mutually exclusive and, instead, always used the two, understanding both arguments as accurate, principled, and expedient. At the same time they sought to realize “the true principles upon which liberty is based,” they promised “the dawn of a golden era,” as journalist Caroline Nichols Churchill put it (see document 14). This flexibility allowed them to justify their cause and answer their critics within a variety of settings and over time--even into the twentieth century (see documents 3, 5, 19, 28, 29, 30).
To get their arguments out, Colorado suffragists utilized a variety of organizing strategies. One of the strategies they pursued--as the state W.C.T.U. and others had long advocated--was to get women to use the voting rights they already had, that of school suffrage (see documents 9 and 10). In this way, they mobilized women as voters and demonstrated to men that women did want and did use their existing franchise. The most famous deployment of this strategy--coming as it did just months before the 1893 referendum--was the election of clubwoman Ione T. Hanna to Denver School Board #1 in May 1893, largely through women’s votes. Colorado suffragists also grasped the significance of grassroots organizing, establishing some sixty local chapters of their suffrage association (see document 15). The prominence of journalists in the movement, including Ellis Meredith, Minnie J. Reynolds, and Caroline Nichols Churchill, meant they understood the importance of publicity as well. Meredith conceived of the idea of winning the endorsement of Colorado’s newspapers by sending out postcards asking editors to commit to woman suffrage, a move that had quite an impact (see documents 15 and 19). Finally, they used leaflets, cartoons, and the door-to-door canvass (see documents 15, 20, and 22). This broad range of strategies contrasted sharply with the limited methods of suffragists in 1877: lobbying and testifying before politicians and button-holding voters at the polls (see documents 1, 2, and 5).
National connections and events further illuminate suffrage developments in Colorado. In both 1877 and 1893, Colorado suffragists received funds, advice, and personnel from national and other state organizations. Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Henry Blackwell stumped for woman suffrage during the 1877 referendum campaign, while Carrie Chapman (later Catt) did the same in 1893 (see documents 2, 5, 7, 14, 15, 17, and 18). But differences between those two years at the national level mattered. In 1877, Colorado activists dealt with a divided suffrage movement and affiliated with the American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1893, they could join a united and rejuvenated National American Woman Suffrage Association. Moreover, the failure in 1877 cannot be disentangled from the end of Reconstruction and weariness over the issue of Black male suffrage at the national level (see documents 1 and 5), and success in 1893 occurred within the context of the nation’s worst economic crisis to that date and subsequent political changes. As it turned out, Colorado’s failure in 1877 and success in 1893 provided a concrete example of how to build a social movement and achieve political aims, an example to which suffragists and anti-suffragists referred in the decades following victory (see documents 27, 28, 29, and 30). The meaning and legacy of the struggle for equal suffrage in Colorado were felt far beyond the state’s borders.