For the first time in state history, women will hold the majority of seats in the Colorado legislature

colorado state capitol_sunset.jpg
Posted at 7:38 PM, Nov 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-18 21:38:21-05

DENVER — For the first time in state history, women will hold the majority of seats in the Colorado State Legislature when the 74th General Assembly convenes in January.

In the Colorado House of Representatives, women hold 39 of the 65 seats, and include 34 Democrats and five Republicans.

In the Colorado Senate, meanwhile, women hold 12 of the 35 seats. Of those, 10 are Democrats and two are Republicans.

The change makes Colorado only the second state in the nation with a majority-women legislature, behind Nevada.

A history of making history

Since its inception, Colorado has been ahead of the curve in politics.

“Colorado was the second state in the nation to have women voting in national elections. And we were the first state to have that happen by popular vote in 1893,” said Shaun Boyd, the curator of archives at History Colorado.

It was the first time in the nation’s history men voted to allow women the chance to do the same.

“That's 27 years before the 19th Amendment. So, we were way ahead of the pack,” said Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Englewood.

The very next year, in 1894, Colorado because the first state in the country to elect women to the state legislature. Three women were elected that year — Clara Cressingham, Carrie C. Holly and Frances Klock.

Froelich helped create the documentary, "Strong Sisters," which documents the history of women being elected to office in Colorado and takes a closer look at why women have had success in the state compared to other parts of the country.

“It has something to do with our Western ethos. It has something to do with the newness of our state, where people feel they can come and reinvent themselves. There's a theory that it's sort of the cowgirl, rancher woman is an independent spirit,” Froelich said.

Boyd, meanwhile, said even before being elected to office, women played an important in state politics, though from behind the scenes. Even the Women’s Suffrage Movement was considered to be more underground in Colorado.

Boyd sees parallels between that movement and this moment in state history.

“It's almost like they had, like, the stealth campaign to get the suffrage vote through in 1893. And, you know, sometimes it feels like this. Women taking over the legislature is almost like a stealth thing. Did people even notice that this was going to happen?” she said.

Change from the inside out

With more women in the legislature, the building itself has also had to make changes over the years.

In 2019, the Colorado State Capitol added its first lactation room when state Sen. Brittany Pettersen was expecting her first child. Before that, there was no dedicated area for lawmakers or staff to nurse.

Changes have also been made to the restrooms over the years to accommodate for the increase in female lawmakers.

“We had to fight for a women's restroom closer to the floor. Women were missing votes because they had to make a long journey to go to the women's restroom,” Froelich said. “It is interesting how our presence in the building has physically transformed the building.”

There’s even a plaque in the women’s restroom marking the moment a closer bathroom was made available. After the House renovations, women were even given the larger restroom on the House side.

A new day

While the new balance in the state house better reflects Colorado’s overall demographics, Froelich insists women will still be playing catchup for years. She said she always knew Colorado would get to this point, she just didn’t think last Tuesday would be the turning point.

Another history-marking moment in the state legislature this year: eight of the nine leadership positions in the House have been filled by women.

“We're now going to have a speaker of the house that's on the Western Slope. That's a first, you know, and it’s a female. So, I'm kind of I'm excited about that. We might not be of the same party, but you know, we've run bills together, and I consider her a friend,” Rep. Janice Rich, R- Grand Junction, said of Rep. Julie McCluskie, D- Dillon, who was tapped to be the next Colorado House speaker.

Rich was first elected to the legislature in 2018, and after serving four years in the House, she was recently elected to serve as the state senator for District 7. Rich is one of only two Republican women in the senate and said she's excited to be part of the history.

“We decided we'd have our own women's caucus and margaritas on Friday,” Rich said jokingly.

Newly-elected lawmakers are also excited about taking part in this moment in state history.

Representative-elect Elizabeth Velascvo, D-Glenwood Springs, is the first Latina to represent her district in the Western Slope, which includes Aspen, Garfield, Pitkin, the Roaring Fork and more.

“It was very exciting to see so much diversity, to see people of color, to see young women and older women and all over lived experience come together,” she said.

Velasco is excited to see the new ideas women bring to the bills, given their diverse experiences as mothers, business owners and providers for their families.

Another new face at the state capitol is Meghan Lukens, a representative-elect from Steamboat Springs who is a descendant of the suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Lukens is also a history and government teacher, so she appreciates the importance of this moment.

“I just wanted to say thank you to all of the women that have come before us, that worked so hard to get us here to where we are today,” she said.

This session, Froelich expects to see women’s issues and women’s viewpoints front and center throughout the long days and lengthy debates. She was one of the prime sponsors for the Reproductive Health Equity Act this past session in the legislature, which codified abortion and contraception rights into state law.

However, just because women hold the majority in the legislature, they are certainly not a monolith and will not be speaking or voting as one voice.

Rich said it’s not her gender that drives her legislation, but her desire to do what’s best for her community.

“I think anything that's important, whether it be the high prices of gas or the groceries or our rent or mortgages or sending our children to school, I think those are important issues whether you're a man or a female,” Rich said.

The lawmakers come from different backgrounds and locations, and have different priorities for the upcoming legislative session. There will be times when they disagree. Nevertheless, each one that Denver7 spoke with said they are happy to be part of history and are ready to get to work.

“When you're come from a place like Colorado, where we have this rich history, you're standing on the shoulders of folks that walked before you, and that's humbling and empowering,” Froelich said.