2020 marks the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But did you know that Colorado actually gave women the right to vote in 1893? That’s a whopping 27-year prelude.
Not only did Colorado give women the right to vote decades before the 19th Amendment, it also enacted the right by popular referendum, becoming the first state to recognize suffrage rights through a direct vote. The word suffrage, by the way, comes from the Latin suffragium, which means “vote” or “support.”
Western Territories, Mormons, and Pesky Schoolmarms
What on earth shaped Colorado’s early entrance into the domain of women’s rights? We asked Rebecca Hunt, PhD, co-director of the Public History Program and director of Museum Studies and Material Culture at CU Denver’s History Department. Hunt explained there were multiple reasons for Colorado to take such a seemingly progressive stance.
Geography accounts for part of Colorado’s suffrage history. Western states granted women voting rights for pragmatic reasons. First Wyoming Territory gave women the right to vote in 1869, “trying to attract more settlers,” Hunt said. Utah followed suit in 1870. A Mormon theocracy, the territory sought to maintain control as non-Mormons moved West. “Give the women the vote, and they’ll vote how the Mormon Church wants it,” explains Hunt.
After Colorado became a state in 1876, it held elections, and a women’s suffrage referendum was put on the ballot. While it did not pass, women celebrated a partial victory: They were granted the right to vote in school elections and to hold school offices, which they did almost immediately. Essentially, this proved that women could have opinions without destroying society.
Perhaps more importantly, Western states had significant differences from Eastern city centers. “People watching the West develop saw that women had a role in building society and that they were capable of doing it,” Hunt said. “In more established places, that wasn’t always the case.”
Suffragists, Miners, and Soup
By 1893, support for women’s suffrage increased, thanks to the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association. Headquartered in the Tabor Opera House, the organization included journalist Minnie Reynolds, who convinced three-quarters of the state’s newspaper editors to support voting rights for women.
Economics also played a role. “In 1893, the country went into a very deep, very serious depression,” Hunt said. “The government decided not to mint silver money, which closed down the mines, putting thousands of miners out of work.” Displaced miners came to Denver and set up a large tent camp downtown, where suffragists passed out soup—and voting rights flyers.
The women’s work paid off when Colorado passed a referendum giving women the right to vote in 1893. “It shows the power of both circumstance and networking in getting something done,” according to Hunt.
19th Amendment Ratified by One Vote
Decades later, when the 19th Amendment passed, it did so by one vote in the Senate and one vote in the House of Representatives.
The amendment became law thanks to Harry Burn, “a young man from the hills of Tennessee, whose mom convinced him to vote for it,” explains Hunt. “When my students say one vote doesn’t matter, I lay this out for them.”
History Colorado is celebrating the Women’s Vote Centennial with a campaign to encourage women to vote: Bold Women. Change History. This sentiment very much applies to Representative Burn’s mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, a college-educated farmer who wrote a letter to her son that read, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage.”