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Colorado’s suffrage sisters, the nation’s first female legislators

Colorado was ground zero for women in state politics. Three leading ladies were elected in 1895 and set forth a long line of female legislators.

Photos via History Colorado

Carrie Clyde Holly, Clara Cresshingham and Frances Klock were three of a kind. But probably more accurately, they were the first of their kind.

The three were the first women to serve in any state legislature in the U.S. In 1893, Colorado became the first state to give women the right to vote. It’s neither here nor there that Wyoming and Utah beat Colorado to the punch in granting women such a significant and natural right, but both were still just a territory — many states didn’t grant women the right to vote until after 1910, when the suffrage movement really began taking off.

In 1865, then Governor John Evans entertained the idea that women should have the right to vote, but it wasn’t taken seriously. Two years later the idea started gaining momentum. In 1870, Governor Edward Cook once again pushed the topic saying,  “Before dismissing the subject of franchise, I desire to call your attention to one question connected with it, which you may deem of sufficient importance to demand some consideration at your hands before the close of the session. 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 universal suffrage,” Cook said.

It was 23 years before Colorado was convinced of Cook’s words. Colorado has been an incubator for women in politics ever since its approval, sending on a message that women very much have a place in government, law and politics.

Colorado is among the top states for women legislators today. This year, 39 percent of Colorado’s legislature is made up of women, with 28 in the the House and 11 in the Senate. That dropped from the last two years. Then, 42 percent of legislators were women.

The three women were elected to the Colorado Statehouse in 1895. But Holly, a Republican, was by far the most active in the suffrage movement. The, native New Yorker moved to Vineland, just outside of Pueblo, five years prior. While on the East Coast, Holly and her husband Charles Frederick Holly studied law — both ended up in Colorado government roles. Charles was a Justice of the Colorado Territory Supreme Court in 1865.

Holly’s relocation to Southern Colorado with her husband didn’t mean she would sit back and watch. Holly, an attorney, quickly jumped into a Vineland school board position.

It’s also said that in 1895, the year the three were elected to the legislature, Colorado women made up 52 percent of the overall state vote.

When Holly became a legislator there was still work to be done — even though Colorado at the time seemed to embrace female political leaders more than other states. Afterall, it was an all-male electorate in the legislature that ultimately granted a woman’s seat in the statehouse.

Holly was the first of her two other female state lawmakers to introduce a bill into the legislature — and as she found passion in fighting for other women, her bill did too.

During the late 1800s most states still submitted to the idea that a young girl could consent to sex. While some states had laws on the books that made the formal age of consent under 10 years old, Colorado was 16. But Holly fought to increase that age to 18. It came to be known plainly as “Holly’s Bill.” The bill, hard fought and the first from a woman in Colorado, won over her male-majority legislators. The bill was passed and written into law.

Holly’s bill took on aspects of prostitution, a topic hardly addressed in a feminist manner. After being passed, Holly received a special letter of recognition from the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.

Of course, Holly being the first woman to introduce a bill has not gone unnoticed. She’s still being honored today for it. Emerge Colorado, a training program for women interested in running for office, honors a female lawmaker annually.

Following Holly’s bill, bills authored by women in the Colorado Statehouse continued to address issues such as education, labor and social conditions. This was particularly important as mining was booming in Colorado towns and women had as much a role in the growing municipalities and industrialization. By 1900, women legislators were fighting for labor laws specific to women.

The other two women lawmakers that made waves as the nation’s first female legislators also had major firsts — Klock, the first woman to chair a committee and Cressingham the first to have a leadership role, secretary of the Republican caucus.

At the capitol today the issue of gender equality is still very much relevant. Resolutions honor Holly, Klock and Cressingham.

This March, some women legislators attempted to follow the movement of others across the country with “A Day Without Women.” 13 Democrats joined their colleagues a little late to make a statement. Some Republican women legislators wore red to celebrate the day.

But no woman legislator dipped out for the day. The “Day Without Women” lasted all of 10 minutes in the Colorado Legislature, the Denver Post reported.

Many of the women lawmakers said their work was too important to take a day off.

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Written by Kara Mason

Profile photo of Kara Mason

Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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