One hundred years ago today, the United States adopted a new constitutional amendment: Women would have the right to vote.
On Saturday, La Plata County residents celebrated that historic day with a salute to the diverse women who made it happen – and a heightened appreciation for the right to vote.
The 19th Amendment was a victory 70 years in the making, but Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American women continued to face barriers to voting for decades after it passed. Its anniversary coincides with the Black Lives Matter movement and concerns about voting access during the coronavirus pandemic. On Saturday, residents roamed an open-air suffragist gallery, taking stock of the historic moment.
“My big takeaway is just wanting young girls to vote,” said Caitlin Cannon of Durango. “Sojourner Truth risked her life and endured incredible abuse to fight for the ability to vote, and then people just don’t do it?”
The 19th Amendment Committee, made up of local chapters of the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women, hosted the gallery at Durango’s Buckley Park.
It featured the photos and biographies of some of the most well-known suffragists resting on stands. More than 70 people milled around as audio recordings of famous suffragist quotes and girl power music played. Everyone wore masks and greeters requested contact tracing information in case of coronavirus transmission at the event.
“We wanted people to walk away with a sense of how much time it took for these women to fight for the right to vote,” said Jean Olsen with the 19th Amendment Committee. “We did include Native American and Black women so that it wasn’t just a white women celebration.”
The suffragist movement began in earnest around the 1840s and was pushed to victory by the likes of Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Zitkala-Sa, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth.
“Most of the history we’ve learned about women’s suffrage was about white, middle-class women. And they were wonderful suffragists. But they discriminated against women of color,” said Kathy Barrett, who gathered a crowd during a speech about the history of the movement.
Women argued for equality with men or said their vote would create a more moral, maternal commonwealth. The movement splintered and reformed. It lasted through the Civil War and World War I and was tied to political agendas, like the temperance movement and a “durable white supremacy,” according to History.com.
Suffragists were jailed, beaten, ostracized and worse during the decades-long fight.
“It’s one paragraph in our history textbooks in school,” said Megan Olsen, a community college professor in Colorado Springs, who was at the anniversary event. “I don’t know why we want to gloss over such an interesting point in history, when half the population was trying to get the right to vote.”
Suffrage in ColoradoOne hundred years ago in Colorado, the amendment barely made a splash in the state’s newspapers, said Carolyn Bowra, a volunteer with the Animas Museum in Durango, who helped create an online women’s suffrage exhibit.
“It was literally old news for us,” she said.
Colorado adopted women’s suffrage in 1893, one of the first states to do so. The vote followed an earlier attempt in 1877, which Bowra said “went down in flaming defeat.”
In 1893, San Juan County voted for women’s suffrage; Pagosa Springs and La Plata County, against. A Durango Herald editorial at the time pre-emptively said the vote had failed, drawing criticism from The Mancos Times.
“With its usual slop-over tendencies, The Durango Herald asserts that women suffrage has undoubtably received its final death blow in this state,” the Times said. “... The vote of La Plata County does not commend itself to us as one based upon intelligence, but rather as the legitimate offspring of cheap beer and consequent stupidity.”
The right to vote was more complicated for Hispanic and Native American women in the state.
Parts of southern Colorado were Mexico until a treaty in 1848, which meant Mexican citizens suddenly in the U.S. could declare citizenship to either country. Women had more rights as Mexican citizens, and citizenship remained in flux for years after the treaty.
All of this would have affected who was enfranchised by the 1893 law, according to HistoryColorado.org.
Native Americans were also limited by citizenship. The 19th Amendment allowed only citizens to vote, but the federal government did not give Native Americans citizenship until 1924.
“While Native women were a part of the women’s suffrage protests, only white women were given the right to vote,” said Cheryl Frost, vice chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
Then, many states barred Native Americans from the right to vote for decades. In Colorado, Native Americans living on reservations did not gain suffrage until 1970. They faced additional barriers to voting, like the lack of voter registration sites, until the 1990s, according to HistoryColorado.
The Southern Ute people exist in a matriarchal society and gave women the right to vote when the original tribal constitution was passed in 1936, said a statement from the tribe.
“When it was my turn to vote, my father said that all of us owe a lot to the people who came before he, I, and all of us, because without them we may still be fighting for the rights we have now,” Frost said.
It seems simple, but it’s notAs people gathered in Buckley Park, they were struck by the country’s long and complex journey toward women’s suffrage.
Several people interviewed by the Herald said they learned about new suffragists and liked the diversity of the gallery of suffragists. Mark Hardesty of Durango, one of a few men in a crowd of mostly women, said women have always led the struggle.
“I’m a feminist. Men have to be feminists, too. If everybody’s not free, none of us are free,” Hardesty said.
To Olsen, it seemed simple: Women just wanted the right to vote, and yet they were met with violence, death threats and jail.
“You can connect it to what’s going on today with Black Lives Matter,” Olsen said. “All they’re asking for is changes among police departments so people aren’t getting killed by police before they ever get tried. ... It should be an easy thing, and it’s not. It’s decades of fighting.”
Many, like Bowra, felt a renewed sense of appreciation for their right to vote.
“When you read what those early suffragists went through ... I feel it’s my duty to vote. It’s not only my right, it’s my responsibility to honor those women,” Bowra said.