By Chris Nicholl
Pikes Peak Library District, Colorado Springs
Suffragist, feminist activist.
Caroline Elizabeth Spencer was born in Pennsylvania in 1861, to the former Anna Catherine Brock and Joseph Austin Spencer, an influential Philadelphia attorney. Spencer graduated from the Philadelphia Normal School in 1880 and then attended the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia. Upon receiving an M.D. in 1892, Spencer had decided to devote her life to correcting woman’s political and economic inequality.
Throughout her lifetime, Dr. Spencer suffered severe pulmonary illnesses, including asthmatic bronchitis and later tuberculosis. Seeking a beneficial climate, in 1893 she moved to Colorado Springs, where she practiced medicine until her 1915 retirement. In Colorado Spencer was secretary of the Woman’s Political Union, a co-founder of the city’s progressive feminist clubs and leagues, the Woman’s Club, the Civic League and, in 1913, became a charter member of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage/National Woman’s Party.
By July 1915, the State headquarters of Colorado’s radical feminism was located in Colorado Springs. Spencer persuaded Alice Paul that the city was a superior location for the headquarters over Denver as it was a popular summer resort and influential suffragists resided there. Working closely with Alice Paul, Spencer was the primary organizer of NWP recruitment and events for Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
By August 1916, Spencer had recognized the value of publicly displaying flags and banners to promote suffrage. At a nationally publicized event atop Pikes Peak, in recognition of the newly organized NWP, Spencer raised the NWP flag. On October, 14, 1916, the Colorado Springs Evening Telegraph announced, “Banner of suffrage removed by police from [William Jennings] Bryan meeting.” Dr. Spencer unfurled a banner during Bryan’s speech demanding a federal suffrage amendment. Organizers ordered the banner removed, and it “was taken to the city jail and later sent to Dr. Spencer by special messenger.” In December 1916, Spencer and other NWP leaders displayed a banner at the US Capitol reading, “Mr. President, What will you do for woman Suffrage” while President Wilson recommended to the Congress an expansion of voting privileges for Puerto Rican males.
In early October 1917, Spencer journeyed to Washington to protest Congressional inaction on woman’s suffrage. A party, including Spencer and Alice Paul carried banners toward the White House attracting a jeering crowd which attacked and destroyed the banners. The women were arrested, and the judge found the women guilty of obstructing traffic, suspending their sentences, but threatening a severe penalty if they reappeared in his court. Paul and Spencer immediately returned to the picket line; soon rearrested, they were sentenced to seven months in the Occoquan workhouse.
Spencer demonstrated at the Watch Fires for Justice in January 1919, at which the president’s empty words about democracy were burned in caldrons of fire. Arrested, she was sentenced to five days in the district jail. Hunger striking for duration, although weak when released, she announced that she would immediately return to jail if it would garner attention to the injustice of women imprisoned for the vote.
For the Legal Research Department of the NWP, Spencer helped compile a digest of Colorado’s laws affecting women. Following ratification of the 19th amendment Spencer served as Colorado’s representative on the NWP’s national council for the Equal Rights Amendment where she was instrumental in outlining the program for equal rights. Caroline Spencer continued working for the ERA until days before her death from tuberculosis in October 1928; she is interred at the Spencer family plot in the historic Old Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Chris Nicholl, “Dr. Caroline Spencer & Colorado Springs’ Radicals for Reform,” in Tim Blevins, et al., eds., Extraordinary Women of the Rocky Mountain West (Colorado Springs: Pikes Peak Library District, 2010), 291-98; National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. XXI (N.Y: James T. White & Company, 1931), 141; Inez Haynes Gilmore, The Story of the Woman’s Party (Fairfax, Va.: Denlinger’s Publishers, 1977), 245-46; Colorado Springs Gazette, Dec. 6, 1916, Oct. 23, 1917, Nov. 1, 1917, Jan. 19, 1919; Colorado Springs Evening Telegraph, October 14, 1916; The Suffragist, Oct. 18, 1917, 4-5.