Jerry Kopel


While the rest of the nation celebrates the 75th anniversary of suffrage for women, Coloradans can be somewhat smug knowing our state celebrated the 102d anniversary of that same suffrage for women this year.

But what most Coloradans DON'T know is that we began EARNEST consideration of suffrage for women back in 1870 during the eighth session of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Colorado.

The thirteen-member council (state senate) and 26-member House took office in Denver Monday, Jan. 3rd. The following day Gov. Edward M. McCook, (lawyer, ex-major general in the Union Army) read his Message to the "Fellow Citizens of the Council and House of Representatives."

One portion covered female suffrage: "Our higher civilization has recognized woman's equality with man in all other respects save one -- suffrage. It has been said that no great reform was ever made without passing through three stages -- ridicule, argument and adoption.

"It rests with you to say whether Colorado will accept this reform in its first stage, as our sister territory of Wyoming has done, or in the last; whether she will be a leader in the movement or a follower; for the logic of a progressive civilization leads to the inevitable result of a universal suffrage." (Wyoming had adopted women's suffrage in 1869.)

Amos Steck, Republican from Denver/Arapahoe, was appointed chairman of the council committee to consider this part of the governor's message. On Jan. 19th, 1870 he presented a nine-page legislative report and speech to the council. If anyone thinks of early Colorado legislators as buffoons or drunken gold miners, they should read this extremely literate, well-written argument for women's suffrage, portions of which are reported here.

Steck knew his arguments would take time to be considered. He had to find a way to make the male population of Colorado recognize it was to THEIR interests to make the change. His report starts with a history of another disenfranchised group: Free colored males in 12 of the 13 original states were allowed to vote, as can the male colored population of the "several states lately in insurrection".

Then Steck gets to the issue at hand:

"We do not see how it can be made to appear that the proper sphere of woman is exclusively the social circle and the precincts of the fireside. We think it a matter of much regret that the women of our country have been heretofore so little educated in the business concerns of life.

"Scarcely any of them have made themselves at all familiar with the laws which govern the transfer of property, or regulate its distribution to themselves or their children, in case of the demise of fathers and husbands... Oftentimes they fall into the hands of sharpers through this neglect in their education...

"Your committee, in the examination of this question, are not without hope that in the adoption of this new policy, the avenues of profitable employment to females will be widely extended in those lines of industry which are suitable to her sex and which are now almost exclusively filled by males...

"We have great hope that by making women electors, causing them to be more familiar with the laws, the manner of transacting business, putting them fully on an equality with men before the law, stimulating them to inquiring into the everyday affairs of life, they will gradually but surely remove the prejudice now existing against their employment as clerks, bookkeepers, saleswomen, and in all lighter but necessary labor now exclusively performed by males.

"Its effect will be, if such results shall be attained, largely to contribute to remove from communities that class of unfortunates who live their brief existence upon the wages of sin. For it is undeniable that the want of proper employment, by means of which they may be enabled to live the real cause of filling the haunts of infamy everywhere...

"Give to women employment, put into her hand the ballot as a means by and through which she may demand and enforce her claims to such employment, for which she is as well fitted as her brother, and you remove the incentive which causes the fall....

"The integrity of the opinion of women, the desire to be right and to do justice, whatever the results, we believe, as a rule, to be stronger in women than in men. Familiarize her with political questions, with all the details which men habitually examine as political partisans, and women in that respect becomes fully equal to the man.

"Why should man and women quarrel any more when both vote, than when the husband votes alone? What is there in the relation of mother, sister, or daughter, that is incompatible with the relation of elector? Is there anything of the lovely and beautiful in woman in her social sphere, that would be destroyed by the right to vote?

"What man has ever made the political views of a sweetheart the cause of declining a conjugal alliance, when beauty, grace, and loveliness had wooed her to his heart? And what is there after the consummation of their union, in an honest difference of views on political measures or men, that would excite discord between "two hearts than beat as one?" We repudiate the imputation as grossly unjust....

"It is believed that all that is wanting to produce amongst women the number of distinguished characters equal with men, is opportunity. We cannot and do not anticipate that women will distinguish themselves in the barbarous art of war, which has made so many names immortal, nor in the rough or coarser labors of life, where the brawny, muscular strength of man is only equal to their accomplishment.

"What we insist upon is OPPORTUNITY for women, to choose for themselves what they are best fitted to perform. And to that end we insist that women be clothed with the ballot, to enforce their claims to enter upon any of the labors of life for which they may deem themselves qualified equally well with men...

"We see no cause to shut out women from any of the civil offices necessary to be filled, however high and important they may be. We think that in places where integrity and high moral purpose is requisite, we may with great safety commit such trusts to women...

"With respectful deference to the opinions of that respectable class, who may differ with us, we may be permitted to say that the moral, intelligent, progressive, just, and conscientious portion of the community, who see in woman more than a subordinate, who see in her their equal, nay, their superior in many things, are hopefully anxious for her redemption from the thralldom into which ages of uniform legislation have unjustly condemned her....

"Your committee therefore recommends the repeal of so much of section one of chapter twenty-eight of the Revised Statutes as inhibits females from voting, and the enactment of such laws as will permit them to stand equal in all respects with men before the law."

The Colorado Territorial House also took up the same proposal, chaired by A.H. DeFrance who used substitute language for House Bill 25 to provide for women's suffrage. However, the bill did not pass. DeFrance gave a shorter speech printed in the House Journal, not nearly as well written as the Steck speech.

The constitutional convention met in Denver in December 1874 and submitted a constitution to the people on July 1, 1876 which included the following in Article 7, Section 2:

"The general assembly shall at the first session thereof, and may at any subsequent session enact laws to extend the right of suffrage to women of lawful age and otherwise qualified according to the provisions of this article. No such enactment shall be of effect until submitted to the vote of the qualified electors at a general election, nor unless the same be approved by a majority of those voting thereon."

Complete suffrage for women was on the November 1877 ballot and was defeated, 14,053 to 6,612. Passage didn't occur until November 7, 1893 following legislative approval April 17,1893 of referred law HB 118 sponsored by Rep. J.T.Heath, a populist from Montrose and Delta:

"That every female person shall be entitled to vote at all elections, in the same manner in all respects as male persons are, or shall be entitled to vote by the constitution and laws of this state, and the same qualifications as to age, citizenship, and time of residence in the state, county, city, ward and precinct; and all other qualifications required by law to entitle male persons to vote shall be required to entitle female persons to vote."

The act was ratified with 35,798 votes for, 29,451 votes against. Carrie Chapman Catt, who played an important role in Tennessee's adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920 (which legislative vote gave the amendment the final state ratification needed) played a similar role in Colorado's successful vote in 1893.

Amos Steck who served in the first, second, seventh and eighth territorial legislatures, was a member of the state senate from 1890 through 1894. Did Steck in 1894 remember his words of 1870? "We see no cause to shut out women from any of the civil offices necessary to be filled, however high and important they may be." Surely he did remember.

According to the Colorado Year Book of 1943, "Six women were candidates for the legislature in 1894, three Republicans and three Populists." The three Republican women who were elected to the 1895 Colorado House were the first women ever elected to serve in a state legislature anywhere in the U.S.



Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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