by Katie Ziegler
In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day we report our belief that Colorado’s General Assembly holds the distinction of being the first legislature or parliament in the world to elect female members. Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly and Frances Klock were elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1894, after a popular referendum to grant women full suffrage passed in 1893. The three women, all from the Denver area, served in the House for one term.
We know that the Finnish Parliament was the first country to elect women to a national legislature in 1907. It’s conceivable that another subnational parliament elsewhere in the world might have elected women before Colorado’s legislature did, but it seems highly unlikely given the lack of universal suffrage before the 20th century. We’ll go with the claim that Colorado was first in the world until someone proves it otherwise.
Before the Nineteenth Amendment granted full suffrage to women nationwide in 1920, eleven additional states elected women to their legislatures (Arizona, Idaho, California, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming). All 48 states had elected at least one female state legislator by 1935, and Alaska and Hawaii elected women in their first elections after statehood in 1959 (and both previously had women serving in their territorial legislatures).
This graph shows the growth of women’s presence in state legislatures since Cressingham, Holly and Klock made history. For the years 1895-1927, the percentage of female legislators is calculated based on the number of legislative seats in those states where women were eligible to run for the legislature, rather than on the total number of seats nationwide.
Today women are more than 24 percent of state legislators. As the graph shows, the percentage of women legislators has grown by less than four points in more than 15 years. We’ll be watching to see whether the 2010 elections bring more women to state legislatures around the country and move the national ratio above 25 percent.
The world average for women representation in national parliaments is 18 percent, topped by the Nordic countries, which average more than 42 percent, compared to the Arab states, which average 10 percent.