I Doubt It’s Something In the Water

Colorado women are an anomaly – and the truth is they always have been. As the first female population in the country to get the right to vote by referendum in 1893, Colorado women are some of the most important revolutionaries in American history. It took years for the rest of the country to follow suit. It took giant movements — speeches, petitions and marches. It took the celebrated work of Massachusetts’ Susan B. Anthony, New York’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mississippi’s Ida B. Wells, among others. The ratification of the federal 19th amendment didn’t take place until 1920 – a full 27 years after Colorado.

Why this rural, sprawled, relatively unpopulated mountainous state orchestrated one of the most critical and influential civil rights movements in our country’s history is not entirely clear. It may have been a product of the self-reliance of rebellious Coloradan cowgirls of the late 1800’s. It may have been catalyzed by the state’s separation from the country’s more politically tense coasts. It may have been pushed by Colorado men of the period, who anticipated that voting rights would bring new women to the Western frontier, thus broadening their dating pool. It may have been, but probably wasn’t, something in the water.

What we know for sure, though, is summed up nicely in an interview with Joan Fitz-Gerald, Colorado’s first female President of the State Senate: “Women have been tougher out here.”

This candid interview is part of Strong Sisters, a documentary project currently in production, which tells the stories of Colorado women in politics. The film, woven together with 61 interviews featuring Colorado’s female politicians, puts faces to the profound legacy of powerful women out West. The project is pioneered by producers Meg Froelich and Laura Hoeppner, both scholars in history and active participants in Colorado politics, and directed by Scott Kinnamon, a Denver-based filmmaker. When completed, Strong Sisters will be aired on Rocky Mountain PBS.

The concept stemmed from a research grant received by film producer Laura Hoeppner from the Colorado Legislative Women’s Caucus, a bipartisan organization uniting women under the dome through camaraderie and scholarship. In her studies of Colorado’s past female legislators, Hoeppner and the film’s other producer, Meg Froelich, found the politicians’ stories to be especially compelling. They also found that the narratives were best told straight from their sources, through the invaluable medium of video.

Through a meld of archival footage and interviews, the film tells of women in government crossing over partisan divides on behalf of education reform, environmental action, labor rights, and reproductive rights. It further celebrates the recent accomplishments of Colorado women, who now hold the largest percentage of female state legislators of anywhere in the country.

The Colorado Independent has been following these stories for a while now, airing an in-depth conversation between Rep. Amy Stephens (R – Castle Rock) and House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (D – Boulder) about their experiences as women in Colorado politics and their thoughts on contentious issues.

Although Colorado’s on the gender parity vanguard, women of both leanings still report sexism and other gendered impediments to their political careers. Interviewed women often feel bound to childcare, forcing them to enter politics later than men. Also, according to Froelich, many call the poisoned sexist atmosphere of politics “not worth it.”

Additionally, even though many women have attained positions as state legislators, very few have been elected for seats in Washington. Empirically, state legislators don’t always breed US governors, congress people, or senators – neither Hickenlooper, Ritter nor Bennet held positions in state legislation prior to taking higher office. The result is problematic – there’s lots of talk in the capital about “women’s issues” with few women actually present.

As of now, Strong Sisters is on a serious fundraising campaign. They’ve currently raised and spent $30,000, but need to raise $120,000 from corporate sponsors, moneyed individuals, and crowdfunding in order to get the full film made. If all goes smoothly the film will air in 2015. As Froelich shared with me over the phone, “We need it out before Hilary in 2016.”