Adorned in decorative hats spanning the many eras Colorado women served at the state legislature, female lawmakers gathered on the chilly west steps of the Capitol on Friday to celebrate Women’s History Month.
It wasn’t quite a roar from the west steps, but the voices of about a dozen women were heard as they highlighted the fascinating and pivotal legislative roles women have played over the past century in Colorado. The journey started in 1894 when former Reps. Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly and Frances Klock were elected to the House, becoming the first women to ever serve in a state legislature in the United States.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the election of the state’s first female senator, Sen. Helen Robinson, who was elected in 1912 as a Democrat from Denver. She was only the second woman in the United States to be elected as a state senator, serving from 1913-1916.
Former Sen. Pat Pascoe, D-Denver, joined the group, having served in the legislature for 12 years before leaving in 2003. Pascoe recently wrote a book about Robinson, who she described as a progressive Democrat who served in the “all-male club” of the Senate before any woman served in Congress or the British Parliament.
“Now women can be effective on any issue that supports the health, welfare and security of our society,” said Pascoe, wearing a black vintage large brim hat from Robinson’s era. “I think Helen would be proud.”
Colorado has come a long way since the times when women had to fight even for the right to vote. It was in 1893 that the men of Colorado voted to give women that right. Colorado became the first state to do so through popular election. Many of the female lawmakers who gathered outside the Capitol to honor the significant event on Friday spoke of the remarkable journey women in Colorado have embarked on since they were first given the right to vote. These days, women hold 17 of the 35 seats in the Senate and 23 of the 65 seats in the House, marking the highest percentage of women serving in any state legislature in the country. More than 220 women have served in the Colorado legislature over the years.
To honor the progress women have made since the women’s suffrage days, Reps. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, and Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, are sponsoring Senate Joint Resolution 17, which designates March as Women’s History Month.
“The roles women have played over the years as mothers, educators, doctors, philanthropists, activists, lawmakers and so many others, have shaped the world we live in today,” said Acree. “The progress and changes women have created over the last 100 years serve as an inspiration to all who seek to conquer prejudice and inequality.”
But Acree was careful not to slight the men in the legislature who support women as they continue to fight for important issues in the state. House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, joined Friday’s news conference, though they weren’t donning the fun vintage hats the women were wearing.
The hats ran the gamut, covering many eras in Colorado, from the Flapper days to the rodeo times. House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, would have made Bob Dylan proud, wearing a leopard-skin pill-box hat as she spoke about the leadership roles women have played in the Colorado legislature over the years.
It was in 1955 that Elizabeth Eyre Pellet became the first woman House minority leader. Since then, several female leaders have taken leadership roles, including the first female Senate president, Ruth Stockton, and the first female House majority leader, Norma Anderson. In 2003, Lola Spradley became the state’s first and only female House speaker. In 2005, Joan Fitz-Gerald was chosen as the first female president of the Senate.
“I’m proud to count myself among them,” said Stephens. “This month, let us celebrate and remember the men and women who have made the achievements of today possible.”
The legislature currently has several women in leadership roles: In the House, Stephens serves as majority leader; Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, is caucus chair; B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, is caucus whip; Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, is assistant minority leader; Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, and Lois Court, D-Denver, are minority caucus chairs; and Su Ryden, D-Aurora, is assistant minority caucus chair.
In the Senate, Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, serves as president-pro-tem; Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, is assistant majority leader; and Morgan X]Carroll, D-Aurora, is the majority caucus chair.
See additional photos in the March 2 print edition