Writers on the Range 

Lonesome frontier: National media clueless about the West

This was supposed to be “the year of the West” in national politics. States that had been reliably Republican were suddenly competitive. Two Westerners—Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, and, until he dropped out, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat—were credible candidates for the presidency. The Democrats will hold their national convention in Denver for the first time in a century.

Surely the candidates and the national media would take the trouble to learn something about the West. Well, not exactly.

We can start with Hillary Clinton, a Democratic candidate who talks about “all these women in their 90s” who tell her about being born when women couldn’t vote, and how excited they are that a woman is among the leading candidates. Her Colorado campaign office even produced one, a 90-year-old lifelong Denver resident named Anne Slobko, who wants to see a woman as president but who doesn’t remember the days before suffrage.

Of course she doesn’t. Women have been voting in all Colorado elections, including those for president, since 1893, which was 115 years ago. The national narrative has it that women did not vote in the United States until the passage of the 19th Amendment to the federal Constitution in 1920, and so we often hear that, even though it’s far from the truth.

In general, the U.S. Constitution of yore left voting qualifications up to the states. When Colorado became a state in 1876, its Constitution allowed women to vote in school-board elections, and scheduled a referendum on “female suffrage” for all elections, which was defeated in 1877. But another one passed in 1893, and women have voted in Colorado ever since. In 1900, Denver was the largest city in the world where women could vote.

Wyoming, “the Equality State,” allowed women to vote when it became a territory in 1869, and continued after statehood in 1890. Women voted when Arizona became a state in 1912. Utah Territory gave women the vote in 1870. Montana women got the vote in 1914, and the Treasure State elected a woman to Congress in 1916: Jeanette Rankin, a progressive and pacifist Republican. She was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1917-1919—at a time when, according to Hillary and the lazy national media, women could not vote.

The national media also seem perplexed by Mitt Romney’s religion. The former Massachusetts governor is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. Any lengthy story about Romney will attempt to explain the theology of the Mormon Church, from Joseph Smith’s visions in upstate New York to the 1846 trek to the Great Salt Lake, as if Mormonism were as exotic as Zoroastrianism.

This baffles me. I grew up in northern Colorado. From first grade on, I went to school with Mormons. I played with Mormons after school, and competed against them in spelling bees. At various laundries and newspapers, I worked with Mormons. They’re our neighbors and about as exotic as a Chevy pickup. But if coverage of Mitt Romney is any guide, the West can boast of more religious diversity than the rest of the country.

The national media also treat populism as though Democrat John Edwards and Republican Mike Huckabee were promoting something new when they rail against Wall Street. But out here, populism is part of our political tradition. The Populist Party of the 1890s was a powerful third party. In 1890, they captured five congressional seats in Kansas and 96 of the 126 seats in the state Legislature. In 1892, Colorado elected a Populist governor, a dozen Populist state senators and 27 Populist state representatives. The Populist presidential candidate that year, James Weaver, carried Kansas, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada.

The Populist platform back then called for some reforms that were eventually adopted, including the secret ballot, direct election of U.S. senators, the eight-hour workday, and the graduated income tax. When you read the party platform of 1892, you wonder how much has really changed: “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. …The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists.”

Modern populists just don’t put the same zing in their speeches. But we Westerners probably know about populism, just as we’re familiar with Mormons. We also know that women could vote out here well before 1920. And it’s odd that in this “Year of the West,” the national media haven’t picked up on that.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Salida, Colorado, where he publishes Colorado Central magazine and writes columns for the Denver Post.
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