By Katie Fischer Ziegler
Colorado's pioneering women in politics are the stars of a new documentary premiering during Women's History Month.
"Strong Sisters: Elected Women in Colorado" is an exploration of the unique place Colorado occupies in the nation’s political history. Colorado was the first state to elect women to the state legislature. Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly and Frances Klock were elected in 1894, one year after women’s right to vote was affirmed by an election (with all male voters).
Today, Colorado has the highest percentage of female legislators, 42 percent, well above the national average of 24 percent. The filmmakers, Meg Froelich and Laura Hoeppner, interviewed more than 70 current and former elected women, historians and government observers to tell the story of how women have shaped Colorado’s politics. The documentary also explores whether the state has a glass ceiling: While the number of women in the Colorado General Assembly has been consistently high, there has never been a woman elected as a governor, U.S. senator, or as mayor of Denver, the state’s largest city.
The film posits that Colorado’s frontier nature and the explosion of towns centered around mining in the late 19th century created the perfect conditions for a successful women’s suffrage movement and the election of women to the legislature. Colorado women were used to “doing it all” on rural farms and ranches. The collapse of the silver mining industry in 1893, just before the suffrage referendum, bolstered the women’s campaign, in a way, for they positioned themselves as able to help the state get back on its feet.
Early trailblazing women were seen as having a gentling influence on the men in the legislature, and aligned themselves with causes such as prohibition. Stereotypical ideas about femininity, however, did not always serve women well. Women’s candidacies were derided because they were “just” housewives before aspiring to enter politics. Though women in the film speak of their frustration with these attitudes, they also were quick to point out their pride in their family life and, moreover, the importance of homemakers being a part of a representative democracy.
"Strong Sisters" spotlights Colorado women’s various pathways to politics, and it is notable how many of them reported that they were asked or talked into running for office by someone else. Research shows that this is still a universal experience for many women: They need to be asked to run, rather than being self-starters. Interviewees discuss the effects of public service on their family lives, and share many examples of women working together across the aisle to get the job done.
The film points to campaign fundraising as a major reason that a woman hasn’t ascended to the Colorado governor’s mansion or a U.S. Senate seat. In general, compared to men, women’s networks of friends and business contacts are less able to write the large checks necessary for a statewide campaign. Political polarization and the winnowing primary process also are discussed as barriers for women aspiring to higher office, and, in some cases, the legislature itself.
The women in the film, including Peggy Kerns, former director of NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government, paint an inspiring picture of public service and the importance of representative democracy. They are united in their pride in their roles, and in their encouragement of other women to get involved in the political process. Their message is: You can do it, you should run! Colorado’s longest-serving female legislator, the late Ruth Stockton, inspired the documentary’s title with the quote, “When the going gets rough, they know I’m not the weak sister.”
"Strong Sisters" will be shown on Colordo public television station KBDI later this year and at film festivals. DVDs can be ordered from the website.
Katie Fischer Ziegler is the program manager for the Women’s Legislative Network of NCSL.