Long before Xerox Chief Executive Officer Anne Mulcahy and Condoleezza Rice broke through the glass ceiling, women in the Rocky Mountains were cutting their own paths to accomplishment.
There was Gretchen McRae, a black woman and civil rights crusader who campaigned unsuccessfully for the Colorado Springs City Council in 1943.
Caroline Spencer, a doctor and leader of militant feminists, battled for women’s right to vote. Marie Guiraud took the family ranch to prosperity after her husband died, all while rearing 10 children.
They’re among the women who will be highlighted June 9 at the Pikes Peak Regional History Symposium “Extraordinary Women of the Rocky Mountain West.” The program includes talks from volunteer historians about women as varied as writer Helen Hunt Jackson and Laura Bell McDaniel, who built business in the world’s oldest profession.
Researcher Jan MacKell said it’s unclear whether McDaniel was a prostitute, but she managed brothels in Colorado City for more than 30 years, taking advantage of a ban on such activities in Colorado Springs. Later, Colorado Springs absorbed Colorado City, now known as Old Colorado City.
“If you wanted to party down, you had to go to Colorado City to find entertainment like that,” said MacKell, director of the Cripple Creek District Museum.
Just staying in business for so long made McDaniel unusual, MacKell said. McDaniel didn’t hide her profession, as many women did, and operated it under her legal name. She was a single mother. Like many madams, McDaniel ran into trouble with prohibition. “When she refused to close down, I’m fairly sure the authorities had her killed,” MacKell said. The Pikes Peak Library District Special Collections department puts on the symposium, now in its fourth year. The subject for 2008 will be “Doctors, Disease and Dying in the Pikes Peak Region.”
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VIDA ELLISON (1888-1966) and her husband, Robert, owned Manitou Cliff Dwellings for 33 years. They purchased it in 1910, just three years after the prehistoric buildings were reconstructed in Manitou’s Cliff Canyon. Under Vida Ellison’s management, the attraction enjoyed a creative and impressive “golden age.” The Ellisons arranged cultural entertainment by Pueblo Indians, educational exhibits about the prehistoric cliff dwellers and sold American Indian-made souvenirs in their trading post.
HELEN HUNT JACKSON (1830-1885) was a noted Eastern literary figure who brought her talents to the West. Recent biographers have emphasized her extraordinary efforts to change U.S. attitudes and policies toward American Indians. But the romantic and sentimental sides of her literary influence still hold sway in comparison.
VIRGINIA DONAGHE McCLURG (1857-1931) arrived in Colorado Springs as a New York Daily Graphic reporter in 1877. She later worked as the society editor for the Colorado Springs Republic. She first visited the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in 1882; later visits revealed her real strengths as a political activist as she began to publicize the urgent need to preserve the ancient relics of Anasazi culture.
DR. CAROLINE SPENCER (1862-1928) was a bold and courageous leader of the early-20th-century women’s rights movement. She organized and managed the radical wing of the movement. Determined to secure the right to vote for women, she devoted her energy, time and resources — and risked her life as a protestor — to prompt the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
LAURA BELL McDANIEL (1861-1918) stands out as one of the most important women in her industry: prostitution. Although other Colorado madams have gained recognition, McDaniel and her contributions to Colorado City (now Old Colorado City) have largely been overlooked. McDaniel exhibited a number of traits that were unusual for a woman in her circumstances. She stayed in business more than 30 years, operating under her legal name. She was a single mother and didn’t hide her profession, as many women did.