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Colorado Women: A History

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Colorado Women is the first full-length chronicle of the lives, roles, and contributions of women in Colorado from prehistory through the modern day. A national leader in women's rights, Colorado was one of the first states to approve suffrage and the first to elect a woman to its legislature. Nevertheless, only a small fraction of the literature on Colorado history is devoted to women and, of those, most focus on well-known individuals.

The experiences of Colorado women differed greatly across economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Marital status, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation colored their worlds and others' perceptions and expectations of them. Each chapter addresses the everyday lives of women in a certain period, placing them in historical context, and is followed by vignettes on women's organizations and notable individuals of the time.

Native American, Hispanic, African American, Asian and Anglo women's stories hail from across the state--from the Eastern Plains to the Front Range to the Western Slope--and in their telling a more complete history of Colorado emerges. Colorado Women makes a significant contribution to the discussion of women's presence in Colorado that will be of interest to historians, students, and the general reader interested in Colorado, women's and western history.

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ONE: EARLY WOMEN (PRE-HISTORY–1858)

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In the southwest corner of Colorado lies Mesa Verde National Park. For centuries, its cliff dwellings lay silent and empty until a rancher stumbled upon the site. Even then, it was years before the place buzzed once again with human noise and activity.1 In centuries past, the dwellings snuggled beneath the overhang of cliffs were bustling with activity. Archaeological excavation and studies have helped to paint a picture of the lives of ancient cliff dwellers. Living high above the canyon floor, they threw what they did not want down the slope. Their garbage pits have provided scientists with an array of artifacts to study.2

Stone metates, manos, and remnants of corn, beans, squash, and cotton indicate the existence of agriculture. Crops were planted on the flat mesas above the cliff dwellings. In front of the homes, kiva roofs created open courtyards where daily routines took place. Ancient Puebloans wove yucca plant fibers into sandals and mats for sitting, kneeling, or sleeping. In the hands of a skilled basket weaver, strands of yucca formed an airtight basket.3 Pottery was also made. Over the years, quality improved and pottery designs changed. The most recently found shard is of a distinctive black-on-white design. Long strands of clay were circled from bottom to top on a stone slab to form the sides of a pot. A woman used a stone tool to scrape the inside and outside of the clay vessel. Every so often she dipped the stone scraper into a small bowl of water. With the moistened scraper, she smoothed, shaped, and thinned her creation. She inspected, polished, and painted the pot before placing it in a campfire.4

 

TWO: PIONEERING WOMEN (1859–1877)

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In 1858 prospectors panned out small pockets of gold from the banks of Little Dry Creek, a few miles up the South Platte from its confluence with Cherry Creek. News of the find spread quickly. By early September, would-be miners from Lawrence, Kansas, who had spent the previous two months unsuccessfully mining the streams of South Park and the San Luis Valley, arrived at Clear Creek. One of the original members of this group was Julia Archibald Holmes, who had walked from the eastern part of the Kansas Territory (which included portions of present-day Colorado) to the western part to build up her endurance. She was determined to climb Pikes Peak, which she did in the summer of 1858, clad in the “American costume” (a calico dress over calico bloomers named after Amelia Bloomer who, like Holmes, was an advocate of women’s rights). From the top of the peak she wrote a letter to her mother in which she described her feelings: “I have accomplished the task which I marked out for myself, and now I feel amply repaid for all my toil and fatigue. Nearly everyone tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed that I should succeed; and now, here I am, and I feel that I would not have missed this glorious sight.”1 Years later another American woman, Katherine Lee Bates, who was teaching at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, was so moved by the vista that she wrote the poem “America the Beautiful.”

 

THREE: MAKING A DIFFERENCE (1859–1877)

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In 1864 three nuns who were barely settled into their new home scurried around trying to find desks for the long line of students standing at their doorstep.1 As days passed into weeks, St. Mary’s Academy, founded by Sisters Ignatia Mora, Beatriz Maes, and Joanna Walsh of the Sisters of Loretto, accommodated day and boarding students eager to take advantage of the first private school in Denver. Weeks later, the sisters could relax and laughingly recall their journey from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and their first hectic weeks in Denver. Answering a call for help from Father Joseph P. Machebeuf, the nuns were following a long line of successful Loretto sisters who had founded girls’ schools in Kentucky, site of the motherhouse, and in Santa Fe.2

After receiving Father Machebeuf’s request, the sisters packed their meager belongings and hired a coach to drive them north from Santa Fe to Denver. Their five-day journey took them through Gloríeta Pass, site of a 1862 Civil War battle in which Union soldiers defeated Texas troops, thwarting the rebel attempt to reach the rich goldfields of the Rocky Mountains to finance the struggling Confederacy. Although the sisters wanted to stop at the historic site, their driver refused. He did not even slow the horses as they approached the place from which the sisters had once heard war cannons at their convent in Santa Fe.3 Rushing past Pueblo’s adobe homes and the beginnings of Colorado City, the coach’s horses galloped to their final reward of oats and flannel blankets in a Denver stable.

 

FOUR: SETTLING IN (1878–1900)

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As communities developed and residents settled in, opportunities opened for single women. Female teachers in particular knew their services would be welcome. One such woman was Phoebe Fidelia Skinner. Skinner was born in Ohio in 1841, making her of marrying age about the time the nation was torn asunder by the Civil War. As young men joined regiments and marched off to war, Skinner and thousands of other women supported the Union war effort. Following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee in April 1865, the men returned, but they were not the vibrant youth of five years past. War had taken its toll on their bodies and minds. Skinner found no eligible bachelors among the veterans. Restless, she left the Midwest and traveled by train to Boulder. In 1875 she was hired to teach in Crisman, a prosperous mining area at the junction of Sunshine Gulch and Four Mile Creek.1 Her students were the sons and daughters of miners, merchants, farmers, and ranchers. As a single woman in her early thirties, Skinner was a bit of an anomaly because most schoolteachers were ten years younger than she. She boarded with the Simon Davidson family in town.

 

FIVE: ORGANIZING FOR CHANGE (1878–1900)

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Although not nearly as large or industrialized as cities in the East, Denver shared urban characteristics with them. Streets were filled with the pungent aroma of horse “road apples,” rotting garbage, and roving bands of dogs. Soot from wood and coal fires darkened clothing, faces, and buildings. The poor lived in dimly lit, poorly heated, sparsely furnished, overcrowded dwellings.1 The city’s elite increasingly moved out to virgin property, untainted by city industries and the working poor. One characteristic Denver did not share with eastern cities was its reputation as a refuge for tuberculosis sufferers. Although leaders shunned the label and city newspapers would not print the word, many consumptives came to Colorado hoping the dry climate would cure them or at least lessen the severity of their illness.

In August 1892 Frances Wisebart Jacobs left her home in Denver and began her daily rounds. Walking the clay-packed, windy streets, she administered to those she found huddled in doorways and the dark recesses of alleys. Upon entering a shanty, she found sickness and abject poverty. Not all her patients were consumptives, but after seeing so many people sick with any one of a number of diseases, she could quickly recognize the ragged cough and gaunt face of impending death. Often there was little she could do. In her basket she carried soup, medicine, and soap. She left these items behind with a family before moving on to another home.2

 

SIX: BREAKING WITH TRADITION (1901–1919)

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In comparison to states on the Pacific Coast, relatively few Chinese or Japanese were living in Colorado in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 1880 census recorded only 593 Chinese and 19 Japanese in the state. For men looking for a wife, the prospects were bleak. Female Chinese and Japanese comprised less than 4 percent of the total number of both populations. The 1910 US census revealed no better news for single Japanese men. Japanese women still made up less than 5 percent of the 2,300 Japanese recorded as living in Colorado. There were more than 2,000 Japanese men for every 100 Japanese women, in contrast to the situation for whites and blacks, where there were 116 males for every 100 females.1 Picture brides became the solution. The 1907–1908 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” prohibited further emigration of Japanese laborers but allowed wives and families to join Japanese men already in the United States. Based on the omaiai-kekkon, or arranged marriage custom, women in Japan exchanged photographs with prospective husbands in the United States, had their names entered into their spouse’s family registers, and then applied for passports to join husbands they had never met.

 

SEVEN: THE PROGRESSIVE ERA (1901–1919)

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In a crowded room at the Astor Hotel in New York City in November 1913, Helen Ring Robinson was introduced as the first woman state senator in the state of Colorado. In a nation in which only eleven states had granted women full voting rights, Robinson was an exotic creature to those awaiting her speech on woman’s suffrage.1 Some were there to be inspired; others were waiting for an opening in which to heckle her. On a lecture tour of five northeastern states, Robinson was forced to rely on skills developed in her earlier career to handle the “antis” in her audiences. She had been an educator at Wolfe Hall and at the Wolcott School, as well as an editor for the Rocky Mountain News, so she knew how to draw upon her personal charm, unwavering confidence, and a strong command of the facts to refute her opponents’ arguments.

To dispel the physical stereotype of female politicians as women who had “faces like vinegar jugs,” the state senator dressed in a dark skirt and white high-necked blouse adorned with a silver brooch. She customarily wore her long hair piled high on her head in a fashionable bun. Detractors criticized her for trying to fulfill a man’s role and for neglecting her family. In response, she reminded them of something she had told a Denver news reporter soon after she was sworn into office: “I am going to be the housewife of the senate. There will be so many men there that I shall let them look after themselves and I shall take it upon myself to look after the women and children . . . I believe a woman who has qualified as a capable mother and housewife can qualify as a capable legislator. I hold my new responsibilities to the people of the state as sacred as I hold my responsibilities to my husband and my daughter.”2

 

EIGHT: CONFORMITY AND CHANGE (1920–1929)

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In 1914 Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield founded a summer dance camp near Nederland. Although the inaugural camp was successful overall, there were problems. The camp was located too close to Denver, which meant proximity to the peering eyes of men anxious to see “scantily clad nymphs” dancing on the hillsides. At 9,000 feet above sea level, the rarified mountain air exhausted the dancers. Lightning storms frightened campers as well as their leaders, who were not known for their timidness. After all, how many women founded their own dance camp on a shoestring budget, even in the intoxicating Roaring Twenties? Only Perry and Mansfield, defying their parents and conventional wisdom, proved adventurous enough.1 Unwilling to abandon their dream, Perry and Mansfield crossed the Continental Divide and settled in Steamboat Springs, where they continued to shock and intrigue local citizens who alternately complained about their existence and eagerly sought out news and views of the camp and its denizens.

 

NINE: THE GREAT DEPRESSION (1930–1939)

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As the nation reeled during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected the thirty-second president of the United States. The voters’ displeasure with Herbert Hoover was as much a factor in Roosevelt’s election as were his campaign promises to do whatever was necessary to move the nation forward. Once in office, Roosevelt and the US Congress passed a litany of bills and created dozens of agencies aimed at “relief, recovery, and reform.” Not everyone was pleased with the results, in theory or in practice. One disgruntled woman was Gertrude Rader of Loma, Colorado.1

Although a variety of programs were created to aid American farmers and ranchers, the Raders found the government “helpers” a “nuisance.” A young male helper would arrive at any time of day, first wasting Gertrude’s time by trying to make a believer out of her by giving her a summary of his college education. Then he wanted to see the livestock, the irrigation canal, or the fields. Whatever it was, it kept her from her chores for much too long. The practice of a helper coming unannounced, disrupting chores or meals, wasting time building up his ego, and wanting to see various areas of the ranch was repeated each time a new government “character” showed up at the doorstep. Making matters even worse were the decisions the young men made regarding the Raders’ livestock and crops. Two officials decided that the Raders had too many “bovine critters” and pigs, so they selected and killed a yearling heifer and two runt pigs and told the Raders to bury them. The Raders, with no electricity or icebox, refused to let meat go to waste, so they bought chemicals and Morton’s pork cure salt in Fruita. They cut the beef into small pieces to fit into fruit canning jars, covered the pieces with corned beef solution, and sealed the jars. They rubbed the forty-pound pigs with pork cure and rolled them in flour sacks. Only after these steps had been taken did the Raders follow the government helpers’ instructions—they buried all the meat under the vegetables in their root storage cellar. The next government official who visited the ranch decided they had too many acres of wheat and ordered the Raders to plow them under. Once again, the couple followed the order but only after they ran the wheat through their cattle’s digestive systems.2

 

TEN: STEPPING UP (1940–1945)

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With World War II raging in Europe and the United States precipitously close to joining the Allied forces, Oleta Lawanda Crain, a black teacher, quit her job in a segregated school in Oklahoma and moved to Colorado to look for a better-paying job. By late 1942 she had found a job cleaning toilets and mopping floors at the Remington Arms Plant just west of Denver.1

Although the company claimed publicly that it did not discriminate, Remington Arms initially hired African American women in only one of three areas—the restrooms, the cafeteria, or the lead shop. The first two positions paid much less than the lead shop. Working in the lead shop, though, had a disadvantage. Although men and women in the other areas of the plant were not given physical exams, workers in the lead shop were tested every three weeks for lead poisoning. If the level of lead in their blood was too high, they were removed from the shop and temporarily assigned to cafeteria or restroom work.2 Although this was done for the workers’ protection, it also meant a decrease in pay.

 

ELEVEN: CONFORMITY AND CHANGE, TAKE TWO (1946–1960)

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“1958 Miss America Runner Up: Miss Georgia, Jody Elizabeth Shattuck.” With that pronouncement, Marilyn Van Derbur became the second Miss Colorado in three years to be named the nation’s ranking beauty queen. Crowned by the 1957 winner, Van Derbur walked calmly down the 120-foot runway in Atlantic City’s Convention Hall before a wildly applauding audience. Although she had not won top places in the preliminary judging, Van Derbur’s victory was not a surprise. Two of her three older sisters and her mother, Gwendolyn “Boots,” were former beauty queens at the University of Colorado (CU). Van Derbur started her climb to Miss America as the Phi Beta Kappa candidate for Miss CU. Winning that crown placed her in the Miss Colorado contest, where she was chosen to represent the state in the 1958 Miss America competition. Although part of her piano recital was blacked out to television viewers by a local advertisement, every member of the Van Derbur family was in the audience to cheer her and to join her onstage.1

 

TWELVE: THE MODERN ERA (1961–PRESENT)

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In the economic boom years of the 1970s, construction sites were filled with workers wearing Carhartt jeans, denim work shirts, leather boots, hard hats, and safety vests. Large cranes glinted in the bright Colorado sun. Front-loaders packed clay between the treads of their large wheels as they hauled materials. Workers strode from one end of the site to the other like busy ants. Some workers carried items, some left for a break, and others wiggled into neon orange safety vests as they entered the worksite. At one site a sign on the enclosing fence read “Alvarado Construction.” An astute passerby might have noted the Spanish surname but would have been stunned to learn that the owner of the company was a Hispanic female. In 1980 only 161 Hispanic women worked in the construction industry.1 One of those women—Linda Alvarado—owned her own company.

After graduating from Pomona College with a degree in economics, Alvarado took a position with a California development company. In the port-a-johns at job sites, she encountered drawings of herself in various stages of undress. The graphic, crude drawings unsettled her but did not lessen her passion for construction work. If anything, they stiffened her resolve to make it in “a man’s job.” Her parents had prepared her well for such uncomfortable situations. Alvarado was born in 1951. She and her five brothers were raised in a three-room adobe house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with no indoor plumbing. During Alvarado’s childhood and school years, her mother took in ironing to make ends meet, and both parents stressed education and hard work. They also encouraged her to try things, even if they were not traditional activities for girls. Her mother did all the housework rather than have her only daughter help out. Instead, she told her to concentrate on her studies. Her dad also supported her and allowed her to work on his car. When she decided to form her own construction company, her parents took out a loan for her startup costs. Knowing they would lose $2,500 if she failed, Alvarado made sure their loan was a good investment. Over thirty years later her company had successfully built commercial, housing, government, industrial, institutional, environmental, and technology projects throughout the United States. Her Denver projects include the Colorado Convention Center Expansion, Invesco Field (now Sports Authority Field at Mile High), the Hispanic Heritage Center, Botanic Gardens, and Colorado Ocean Journey. She is noted for the loyalty of her workforce and subcontractors and the awards she proudly displayed in her office: Sara Lee Forerunner Award for exemplary achievement and leadership, United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Business Woman of the Year (twice), Revlon Business Woman of the Year, and member of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.2

 

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