History Colorado commemorates the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
Stories Addison Herron-Wheeler
When the decade that came to be known as the Roaring Twenties began, women had been fighting to win the right to vote for nearly a century. More than seven decades had passed since the first national Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, where the Declaration of Sentiments was written and declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Most of the delegates to the Seneca Falls Convention had agreed in 1848 that American women were autonomous individuals who deserved their own political identities, but their country didn’t see it that way. An amendment guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote was ratified in 1868—but it defined “citizens” as white males. In 1870, the definition expanded to include black males too. For the next 50 years, women fought for the same Constitutional consideration. By the end of 1919, Congress finally passed a federal women’s suffrage amendment to the US Constitution, but it had yet to be ratified by the states.
With the 1920 presidential election drawing near, the decades-long battle between women’s suffragists and their opponents came to a climactic clash during the summer months in Tennessee. The state’s House voted to pass the 19th Amendment on August 18, and eight days later, it officially became part of the Constitution on August 26, 1920. This year marks the 100th anniversary of that milestone, which is now celebrated as Women’s Equality Day.
The last hundred years have sent women’s rights on a roller coaster ride of gained advances and continued hardships. The Women’s Vote Centennial Colorado 2020 (WVC) project in Denver and throughout Colorado, celebrated this year by History Colorado and the Women’s Vote Centennial Commission, is taking a hard look at those ups and downs.
Governor Jared Polis, History Colorado, and the Colorado WVC Commission joined forces to honor the Women’s Vote Centennial commemoration of the 19th Amendment. Festivities include a traveling exhibit about women’s suffrage, a guest speaker series, and other activities that celebrate a woman’s place in the polling place.
“History Colorado, in partnership with the Women’s Vote Centennial Commission, is leading the Women’s Vote Centennial Colorado 2020 initiative, which is a project to mark and explore the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment,” says Jillian Allison, director of the Center for Colorado Women’s History. “Colorado women were able to vote prior to that, so we’re also looking at that with our exhibit and events. Another major theme of the commemoration will be the many barriers to voting that women continued to face after 1920.”
This statewide initiative aims to reach every county in the state, so the Center for Colorado Women’s History is working with community partners such as museums, libraries, clubs, businesses, and anyone else who wants to bring awareness to the importance of the vote. A guest speakers’ series—titled “Bold Women. Change History.”—will feature humanitarians who have carried the spirit of suffrage into modern times. Road to the Vote, the traveling exhibit currently making its way across the state, is a look back at how women gained hard-earned rights. The exhibit’s visual history will engage both young and old.
“Organizations around the state are invited to participate and join in grassroots efforts that will explore the journey and struggle to achieve voting rights, understand the contributions of women in Colorado history, and underscore the value of our voices in democracy today,” reads the governor’s official statement about commemoration. “The Women’s Vote Centennial Colorado statewide effort officially commences a year of educational programming, community engagement and Partnerships.” There is a lot of official pomp and circumstance around this celebration, and with good reason.
“Let’s remember those who fought on our behalf, explore the stories of success and setback, and most of all, let’s continue to vote,” reads the group’s website. With slogans like “You shape history every time you vote,” the exhibit sends a strong message.
Next in the History Books
It’s serendipitous that this anniversary coincides with such a pivotal election year. Given that, in 2016, the American people failed to elect Hillary Clinton, an expected shoe-in as the first female president of the United States, this celebration is especially timely. It’s notable that 100 years after women earned the right to vote, a woman still has yet to be elected. Is 2020 the year?
When it comes to presidential elections, Colorado is an important battleground state, and it has long been an important place for politics. In 1893, Colorado became the first state to make it illegal deny citizens the right to vote based on sex alone—more than 25 years before the country made the same move. Colorado paved the way for the 19th Amendment, a pioneering spirit that still runs strong with the state now leading the way on issues like cannabis prohibition and protections for trans rights.
“We definitely wanted to bring awareness to ongoing issues when we launched the Center for Colorado Women’s History,” Allison says. “Our focus can help shine a light on the struggles of the past and successes of women—ways that they’ve broken barriers and made changes. If we learn from the past, we can make a better Colorado.”
With that in mind, the organization has set up programming to help highlight issues still relevant today. On February 12, the speaker series welcomes civil rights activist and author Carol Anderson to History Colorado for a discussion exploring the impact of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and how current patterns mimic historic struggles. It’s one of many events lined up throughout the year, listed on the History Colorado website (historycolorado.org).
“It’s only January 16, and we have already had over 100 events and activities posted to our community calendar,” Allison says. “People are hosting events that tie in with the theme, and we’re encouraging more people to reach out if they want to get involved. I like the simple idea that making your voice heard by voting has such an impact in our communities, locally and nationally. We can all get involved, and it’s really powerful.