1908 convention spotlighted suffrage

Colorado modeled women's rights

Chris Bragg

Most schoolchildren learn that Wyoming became the first state to give women the right to vote in all elections. Wyoming was a territory when its male citizens voted for suffrage in 1869, and kept the policy when it entered the union in 1890.

But few people seem to know that in 1893, Colorado became the second state to grant women full suffrage, and the first to grant it originally as a state. By the time the Democratic National Convention rolled into town in 1908, Utah (1895) and Idaho (1896) had joined the list of suffrage states.

Why was Colorado ahead of the curve in relationship to the rest of the nation, which didn’t grant universal woman’s suffrage until 1920?

For answers, look no further than the rise of the Populist Party, the cutting edge of the liberal movement that, besides women’s suffrage, called for unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income tax and other social reforms.

Populism dominated the West during the early 1890s. In 1892, Populist candidates swept the Colorado ballot, carrying the vote for president, governor, the rest of the state’s executive branch and the state Senate.

“Woman suffrage passed in Colorado in 1893 due to economic crisis, consensus on silver in an off-year election, the participation of middle-class club women, the positive example of neighboring Wyoming, and the weak mobilization of the opposition,” writes Rebecca Mead in How the Vote was Won: Woman Suffrage in the United States, 1868-1914. (NYU Press, 2004).

By 1908, 10 women had served as state legislators in Colorado, and women had been voting in national elections for 14 years.

It might seem things were going well for the Populists as the Democratic convention began in Denver. After all, the Denver convention’s nominee, William Jennings Bryan, had been chosen as the nominee of both the Democratic and the Populist parties in 1896.

Despite all that, however, Populism seemed stalled nationally in 1908, and that was reflected at the convention.

No new states had granted suffrage for women since Idaho. So, although Bryan’s populist message of “Shall the people rule?” was the theme of the 1908 platform, a proposed universal suffrage plank failed, despite efforts by suffragists to enlist the support of labor leader Samuel Gompers.

“Male progressives generally supported woman suffrage as both an equal rights principle and a political democratization measure, but waffled on official endorsement, prioritized other issues, and left female colleagues to manage suffrage by themselves,” writes Mead.

Bryan’s own daughter expressed opposition to universal suffrage while attending the 1908 Convention.

“I believe it would lessen her influence,” Ruth Bryan Leavit told the Rocky Mountain News. “My experience has been that woman can secure the passage of any humanitarian reform by appealing to both parties. The great work of women is to educate public sentiment.”

And Leavit certainly wasn’t in Denver to advance the cause of women’s rights. The Rocky reported that, “Mrs. Leavit’s connection with the convention and its various adjuncts is purely social. She will take no active part in anything, other than the numerous receptions and other social functions where she will attend as a guest.”

Rather, Leavit would parade the town with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Republican incumbent president Teddy Roosevelt. Longworth was at the convention because she was married to a prominent Democratic politician.

Roosevelt himself had been quoted in The Rocky Ford Enterprise as saying that, “Personally I believe in woman’s suffrage but I am not an enthusiastic advocate of it because I do not regard it as a very important matter. I have been unable to see that there has been any special improvement in the position of women in those states in the West that have adopted woman’s suffrage …”

Despite such visible discouragements, developments beneath the surface of the 1908 convention would help lead to universal suffrage within 12 years.

“Having the convention here was really an important litmus test to see if women should be allowed to vote,” said Colorado State Historian William Convery in an interview.

“Having it in Colorado really raised the profile of women’s suffrage on a national scale. And 1908 was the beginning of a ‘reform impulse’ that would lead to other reforms like the direct election of senators, an income tax and Prohibition.”

The Rocky described the situation of women at the 1908 convention this way:

“Pretty much every woman who has come to town has taken for granted that she was to be compelled to take a suffrage pledge and wear a yellow ribbon. They begin to insist just as soon as they are introduced that they ‘take no interest in politics’ and think it is ‘horrid for women’ to vote, ‘and they thank heaven that they are ‘just womanly women.’ ”

“The suffrage plank may not be inserted into the Democratic platform at the Denver convention, but Democracy will have its first opportunity seeing women take an active part in politics, because for the first time in the history of the party, women will sit in the big convention.”

The Democrats elected the first five female delegates to their national convention in 1908: two seated delegates and three alternates. From the Western states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, the women included two superintendents of schools, one rooming-house owner and two homemakers.

“Of all ridiculous ideas, the very silliest is that suffrage interferes in any way with household or maternal duties,” Mrs. Henry J. Hayward, a delegate from Utah, told the Rocky at the 1908 Convention. “An interest in the questions of the day brightens a woman, takes her out of the daily rut of dishes, dusting and sweeping and gives her a common bond of interest with her husband.”

Probably the most famous among the five delegates was Mary C.C. Bradford, a seated delegate to the convention, who had been active in politics in Colorado nearly since Colorado was granted statehood in 1876. A woman described by the Rocky as an “eloquent platform speaker,” she was the daughter of a prominent New York lawyer and a relative of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Bradford founded the Jane Jefferson Democratic club in 1902, a women’s political group that still exists nationally, and went on to serve as superintendent of schools in Adams County and Denver before serving a dozen years in the elected office of state superintendent of public instruction. Bradford was recognized nationally for her program providing school standardization, which she first proposed in 1914.

After Bryan was nominated in Denver, a blind senator from Oklahoma mentioned Bryan’s name in a speech, and the ensuing 87-minute session of hooting, hollering and dancing lasted until 3:40 in the morning. The Rocky’s headline July 9, 1908, following the hoopla, was that the “‘Less Attentive Sex’ takes notice, really, as convention shows.”

“Woman’s part in Great Demonstration for Bryan Proof of Her Realization of her Position,” the Rocky stated, going on to write about how Bradford had carried the state banner for Colorado during the celebration for Bryan, noting that women from Massachusetts and Kansas had joined her.

While the delegates from New York sat silently in their seats, unwilling to cheer for Bryan, it was reported that three women from Oklahoma tried to rouse them — to no avail.

“The New York bunch saw us coming, and Murphy lost no time to get away,” one of the Oklahoma women told the Rocky, of the Tammany Hall boss, Charles Murphy.

As for Bryan himself, he frequently acknowledged the influence of his wife, Mary Baird Bryan, during his political career, and the two shared a large double desk throughout their lives. Mary Bryan managed her husband’s correspondence, helped prepare his speeches, edited his articles and occasionally negotiated with other politicians.

She also presided over a women’s club in Lincoln, Neb., that endorsed suffrage, and became a national speaker in favor of suffrage in the years leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, when support for the cause finally reached a critical mass following World War I.

Although Bryan — an acknowledged racist who supported Jim Crow laws —seemed somewhat conflicted over equal rights, he endorsed women’s suffrage in 1910, years before most men in his party.

And, in 1916, Bryan started making suffrage a central theme of his rhetoric.

“He agreed that American women deserved equal treatment under the law. But the idea that a loving parent made the most responsible citizen appealed more to him than any constitutional claim,” writes Michael Kazin in his Bryan biography, A Godly Hero. (Knopf, 2006)

With New York Sen. Hillary Clinton nearly winning a nomination for president 100 years after Denver’s last Democratic National Convention, it’s clear that the cause of women’s rights has come a long way.

It has a long way to go, however, according to Robert Hazan, the chair of the political science department at Metro State University.

“Nobody was talking about the color of Joe Biden’s tie,” Hazan said, comparing the Delaware senator’s treatment by the media to that of Clinton during the primary race. “The stereotyped images of the public came through.”

“But Clinton’s candidacy is still going to be of tremendous importance going forward. It was a phenomenal advancement of the movement because the whole world picked it up, and because of the publicity it got. These are the kinds of events that can transcend that ceiling of sexism.”

Hazan said he hopes that, a century from now, historians will look back on Clinton’s involvement in Denver’s 2008 convention as a new marker for women’s rights.

“By 2108,” he said, “I hope that the changes we see will be a function of the work in 2008.”