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Photo by Sarah Boyum

How a Long-Hidden Painting Tells the Story of Forgotten Women

Five years ago, a mysterious portrait was found at the Colorado State Archives. What does the search for the subject's identity tell us about how history views Centennial State women?

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Five years ago, an employee entered a storage room at the Colorado State Archives in Denver to investigate a water leak. There, he made a curious discovery: Cached behind a false wall of blue pegboard were more than 20 paintings of former Colorado chief executives, from Alexander Cummings, the third territorial governor, in 1865 to Governor Daniel Thornton in 1951. The archivists, however, couldn’t identify one portrait—the lone woman in the group.

She wore glasses, a pendant around her neck, and her hair coiffed. Other than her appearance, the painting offered few clues. A date (“5-13-33”) was printed in pen on the back of the frame near a sticker for a long-defunct art gallery, and there was another sticker with a partial address and the word “Miss” written on it. No artist’s signature graced the piece. Historians and art experts who examined the piece suggested that perhaps she had been a Colorado first lady or worked as a member of a gubernatorial cabinet. No one could say for sure, though, until Derek Everett took up the case.

Everett first heard about the mysterious woman five years ago. A professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver who sometimes leads tours at the state Capitol, he began spending his spare time rifling through newspaper clippings and photographs from the early 1930s. Eventually, he came across a 1934 Denver Post obituary. The photo that accompanied the article showed a bespectacled woman with her hair coiffed and a pendant that looked similar to the one in the painting. It appeared to be a match.

Her name was Katherine L. Craig, one of the first women to earn statewide office; she held the position of Colorado superintendent of public instruction five times, her first term beginning in 1905 and her last in 1931. Everett had seen Craig’s name once or twice before but knew little about her—not many education administrators make the history books. But there were hints that Craig accomplished more than your average educator. First, the obit stated Craig had launched a fight against a “clique proposing to take over the entire school system.” More remarkable: After her death, Craig lay in state at the Capitol, an honor reserved for the likes of, among others, Buffalo Bill Cody. Still, Everett could find little else about Craig in the annals of the Centennial State.

That doesn’t surprise Gail M. Beaton, author of Colorado Women: A History. “I think it’s apropos that Katherine Craig was stuffed away someplace and forgotten,” Beaton says, “because that’s exactly what happened to many early Colorado women.” In her book, Beaton details the largely forgotten legacies of Helen Ring Robinson, who became the second woman to serve as a state senator in the United States when she joined the Colorado chamber in 1913, and Mary Petrucci, who brought national attention to the deplorable working conditions in Centennial State coal mines during the 1910s.

Fortunately, institutions in Colorado are trying to fill in those blanks. In 2018, Denver’s Byers-Evans House Museum unveiled the Center for Colorado Women’s History; its Women/Work/Justice exhibit, which concludes this March, highlights workplace movements led by women, including Petrucci. And starting this month, the Colorado Women’s Vote Centennial Commission will celebrate the 100th anniversary of female suffrage with events that “explore the stories of bold women.” Maybe then Coloradans will learn the history this picture was meant to tell.

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