women's suffrage poster colorado

Colorado women gained the right to vote in 1893 after winning a popular referendum—the first state where women got the right from a vote of the people. (History Colorado)

From Early on, Women Have Made Their Mark in State Legislatures

By Kelley Griffin | March 8, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

The first national women’s convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls, N.Y., didn’t even have women’s right to vote on the agenda. Not at first.

Organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton added voting to the agenda, “A Declaration of Sentiments,” right before the event. Her husband predicted it would “turn the proceedings into a farce.” 

In fact, the convention embraced the concept and, after two days of presentations and discussion, presented a unified list of 11 demands to eliminate laws that put women in an inferior position to men, such as their inability to own property, or for a married woman to keep her own income. And, of course, the right to vote.

It would take another 72 years for that right to become part of the U.S. Constitution.  

In the meantime, Western states forged ahead with their own visions of equality.

Leading the Way in the West

The Wyoming Territorial Legislature was the first. It met for its first session in October 1869. By December, it had passed laws guaranteeing equal pay for teachers regardless of sex, guaranteeing property rights to married women who were separated from their husbands and giving women the right to vote and hold office.

In 1870, the Utah Territorial Legislature voted unanimously that women had the right to vote. The Washington Territorial Government granted women the right to vote in 1883, but the territorial supreme court overturned that in 1887, and women wouldn’t secure the vote there until 1910. And in 1893, Colorado women gained the right to vote after winning a popular referendum—the first state where women got the right from a vote of the people.

In 1894, three Colorado women—Republicans Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly and Frances Klock—became the first to be elected to a state Legislature.

There were many factors contributing to the West moving forward so quickly compared with the national stand on women’s voting rights, outlined in detail in the fourth episode of NCSL’s podcast series “Building Democracy: The Story of Legislatures.”

Activists continued to fight at the national level, rallying around the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. It needed the support of 36 states; in 1920, Tennessee became the 36th. 

But it would be another 100 years before women would make up more than half the representatives in a statehouse: Nevada, at 52.4%, and the U.S. territory Guam, at 51%. (Colorado’s 2019 session began that year with a majority of women, but two subsequent resignations changed the total.) In 2022, women make up 30.7% of legislators nationwide.

Making a Difference

From early on, women in state legislatures have put their stamp on legislative action, typically leaning into issues that affect women, children and families.  

Martha Hughes Cannon, a Democrat, became the first female senator in Utah after she defeated her husband, a Republican, in 1896. A physician, Cannon led the creation of the Utah Board of Health and instituted infectious disease regulations.

In the early 1900s, Colorado female legislators succeeded in passing legislation to protect laundresses, who worked long hours in dangerous conditions, and to support rights of domestic workers. Rep. Holly got the state to increase the age of sexual consent from 16 to 18.

Sen. Agnes Reynolds fought against a bill that would lock down sex workers in red-light districts. “Why shut the Gates of Hell on the women and not the men who visit them?” she asked. The bill got only one vote—from the man who sponsored it.

When women first sought to be recognized as equal in the nation’s political life, their rallying cry was, “Everyone is equal.” That message shifted some over the years as women also sought to make the case that they would bring a new perspective to governing. In Colorado, the campaign for the right to vote said women would “clean up” the corrupt government. National suffragists came to stress the “maternal” values women would bring to the table.

Changing the Way Laws Are Made

Research in 2001 by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found a large majority of male and female legislators agreed that the growing number of women in statehouses “has made a difference in the extent to which the economically disadvantaged have access to legislatures and the extent to which legislatures are sympathetic to the concerns of racial and ethnic minority groups.”

The same study found female legislators are more likely than males to favor harsher penalties for hate crimes, legally recognized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples and laws permitting minors to obtain legal abortions without parental consent. Women lawmakers are also more likely than their male counterparts to oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, government-funded school vouchers, the death penalty and a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in public schools. 

A study by the National Women’s Law Center found that in 2018 and ’19, female legislators in states with more representation by women introduced and passed more bills than those in states with smaller numbers of women. In fact, male legislators were also more productive in introducing and passing bills in statehouses with more women than in those that were less gender balanced. 

Kelley Griffin is a writer/editor for NCSL Communications. 

NCSL’s Megan McClure, a policy analyst for Legislative Staff Services, and Martha Saenz, associate director of the State-Tribal Institute, contributed to this article. Learn much more about the long and complicated path for women to gain the right to vote in Episode 4 of NCSL’s podcast series “Building Democracy: The Story of Legislatures.”

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