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The Center on Colfax

Women's Suffrage

In the United States, the women’s suffrage movement was the culmination of many decades and generations of questioning and activism. However, it’s generally accepted that the movement itself began in the early 19th century. It then picked up speed after the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, where activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott gathered in New York state to organize the efforts for women’s rights. They produced a then-revolutionary argument that women should have equal rights to men in all matters, including the right to vote. However, it would be many years before their work paid off in the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially granted U.S. women the right to vote in 1920. Other states had granted women that right earlier, while many women of color continued fighting to vote well into the 20th century.

Within this movement were several notable queer women. Some lived more or less openly, while many more felt compelled to keep their sexuality and gender a secret. They feared reprisal under a patriarchal, heteronormative society that often demanded compliance — or else. Yet it’s clear that queer women were key to the battle for women’s voting rights.

VotingActivists-MARIAJ.AVILA .jpeg

Activists encourage people to vote at the Colorado State Capitol Monday August 9, 2004 at the State Capitol in Denver. Photo by Maria J. Avila for the Rocky Mountain News.

Racism and Voting Rights

Though the 19th Amendment claimed to give all women in the United States the right to vote, the reality was that not everyone had equal access to the voting booth. Women of color experienced serious barriers when they attempted to participate in elections. For instance, American Indians were not considered to be United States citizens in 1920, meaning that the 19th Amendment simply didn’t apply to them. Thanks to the work of activists like Yankton Dakota writer and suffragist Zitkála-Šá, the 1924 Snyder Act finally granted native people citizenship and the right to vote. State laws sought to limit voting rights for people of color in different ways. Potential voters would be confronted by obstacles like poll taxes and literacy tests, which were burdensome for economically disadvantaged people or those who spoke English as a second language.

Immigrants, including first generation Asian Americans, were also barred from voting until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowed them to achieve citizenship and vote. The Voting Rights Act, which abolished many of the above tactics, was passed in 1965 after the work of Black activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash.


Suffragettes marching in New York City, circa 1910-1920.

Voting Rights in Colorado

Women gained the right to vote in Colorado in 1893, nearly three decades before the Nineteenth Amendment secured the same right nationwide in 1920.

But this was not the first attempt to put the issue before voters. Initially, the issue had been raised decades earlier, in 1876, during the Colorado constitutional convention that granted the territory statehood. Faced with a measure that would grant Coloradan women the right to vote, the Territorial Legislature did just that in 1877 — but only for local school district elections. All other elections were voted on by men alone, supported by a society that still largely saw the women's vote as a moral and social danger. Many believed that women should concern themselves only with raising children and maintaining households. Any other activities outside of the home were said to be a distraction from these essential roles.

However, it was clear that many women wanted more say in the running of their communities and country. In the aftermath of the 1877 decision, Colorado suffragists began organizing more intensely, spending the next decades gathering grassroots support. They also leaned into their associations with local religious leaders and the temperance movement, increasing the public’s perception of them as upstanding citizens who fell in line with morals of the day -- and who also wanted to vote. Colorado women claimed their right to vote on November 7, 1893, in a move that made the state the first to do so after a popular vote.

Before the 1893 referendum, Colorado activist Ellis Meredith had already made waves as a journalist and suffragist, writing a column for the Rocky Mountain News titled “A Woman’s World.” She was so widely recognized that she eventually came to be known as the “Susan B. Anthony of Colorado,” though she deserves to be recognized on her own merits. However, Meredith did organize with Anthony herself. She once told Anthony that garnering support for women’s voting rights in Colorado would kick off similar movements throughout the western United States.

After the referendum, she continued her work to secure voting rights for women nationwide. She toured as a speaker throughout the country, wrote for national publications, and testified on women’s suffrage before the House of Representatives in 1904. She also held numerous political offices back in Denver, including serving a term as Election Commissioner where she won in a landslide. Meredith died in 1955.


Sally Niave, working at the Denver Election Commission, takes the ballots to be counted Tuesday May 1, 2007. Photo taken by Linda McConnell for the Rocky Mountain News.

Queer Women and Voting Rights

Though voting rights were central to the suffrage movement, many suffragists were also invested in breaking down the old gendered ways of living. Quite a few were also queer, though it was rare to see someone openly living in defiance of heterosexual norms. To do so opened the entire movement up for criticism, with some opponents pointing to the “mannish” ways of the suffragists as cause for discrediting everything else they stood for. Queer women and gender nonconforming people within the movement often faced pressure to dress and act “normally.” This sometimes came from fellow suffragists, who feared that pushing the boundaries of sexuality and gender would undermine the entire movement.

Still, many continued to live as queer people, though often quietly. Though she was officially married to a man, Alice Dunbar-Nelson had relationships with women while she also worked as an activist and writer. Her diary, which includes details of some of these encounters, speaks to a larger culture of queer women in the suffrage movement. Fellow activists Dr. Mary Sperry and Gail Laughlin also lived together for fourteen years in what was then known as a “Boston marriage.” After Sperry died of influenza in 1919, Laughlin inherited her estate. She also requested to be buried with Sperry’s ashes in a single grave. That request was honored after Laughlin’s death in 1952. Even Susan B. Anthony may have been a quiet member of this group. Historians have uncovered Anthony’s romantic letters to other women, including ones where she named fellow activist Emily Gross as her lover. She also never married. Yet, as one of the most visible people at the head of the suffrage movement, she may have felt compelled to maintain a more conventional image to uphold the larger movement, as other queer activists did.