When Colorado granted women the right to vote in 1893, it became the first state to extend suffrage to the “weaker sex” by state referendum. The question was posed to male voters on the November ballot, and according to historian Gail Beaton in her book, Colorado Women, the votes came back: 35,698 in favor, 29,462 opposed. 

It wasn’t until 27 years later that the rest of the country followed suit by passing the 19th Amendment.

Elizabeth Ensley was a leading advocate for women’s suffrage in African-American communities. Colorado’s largest suffrage organization was racially integrated. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library

To celebrate 100 years of the 19th Amendment, the Center for Colorado Women’s History is unveiling a new exhibit, Bold Women. Change History., in the carriage house of the Byers-Evans House Museum on Saturday, March 7. The exhibit, which will stay up for about a year, tells the story of women’s suffrage in Colorado, highlighting key figures and campaigns that led to the fateful 1893 ballot measure. 

“Newspapers were a big part of [passing women’s suffrage],” says Jillian Allison, director of the Center for Colorado Women’s History. “Most of the women who were involved in our organizations were also writers in some capacity, so they were able to persuade people in that way.”

There was Caroline Nichols Churchill, editor of the Queen Bee, a feminist Colorado newspaper. Elizabeth Ensley, an African-American suffragist in Denver, wrote for The Woman’s Era, a publication of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. “Through Elizabeth Ensley’s writing, we’ve been able to find out more information about some of the African-American women who were really involved,” Allison says, pointing out that Colorado’s largest suffrage organization was integrated, unique for the time period.

Perhaps most well-known in Colorado’s suffrage movement was Ellis Meredith.

“They called her the Susan B. Anthony of Colorado at the time,” says Shaun Boyd, curator of archives at History Colorado. 

A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, Meredith became corresponding secretary for the Colorado Nonpartisan Equal Suffrage Association and exchanged letters with national suffrage leaders including the actual Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt. After women’s suffrage passed in Colorado, Meredith went to work for the Democratic Party in Washington, D.C., as well as the National Woman Suffrage Association. 

A reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, Ellis Meredith played a key role in Colorado’s fight for women’s suffrage. Photo courtesy of History Colorado

The exhibit highlights these individuals, among others, and also includes a ballot from the 1893 election (pictured above) and a ballot box from that era. Visitors can learn how different counties voted on the measure and read a letter Susan B. Anthony wrote congratulating the women of Colorado for winning suffrage by popular vote. 

Part of a statewide effort to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Bold Women. Change History. looks beyond Colorado’s 1893 story to show how Colorado suffrage leaders went on to influence the rest of the country, while acknowledging that Jim Crow and other laws prolonged disenfranchisement of African-Americans, Native Americans, and other populations.

The exhibit shares its name with a speaker series hosted by History Colorado that kicked off last September and has featured such figures as astronaut Susan Helms and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dolores Huerta. Six more speakers are slated for the program through the rest of this year, including Gale Norton, the first female Secretary of the Interior, and women’s suffrage scholars Dawn Teele and Sally Roesch Wagner, who will address attendees of the Bold Women. Change History. summit taking place in May (tickets available online). Together, these programs aim to inspire today’s citizens to action that, like the efforts of the early suffragists, could change communities for the better.

If you go: Bold Women. Change History. opens to the public on March 7 in the carriage house of the Byers-Evans House Museum on 1310 Bannock St. Admission is free.