Willoughby: Women can’t pound nails — Women’s Suffrage Centennial commentary

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

It was a long slog for women to win the right to vote, but Aspen women, all Colorado women, secured the right, with the help of local Governor Davis H. Waite in 1893. The right to vote was only one of many “equality” issues worth fighting for, and Aspen’s women in incremental ways made progress, if not in a legal sense, in daily life.

In 1899, the Columbine Circle, the women’s group within No. 6 Woodmen of the World held a fun fundraiser. The key event was a nail-driving contest for women. The Aspen Times noted that it was believed that women could not hammer nails. The Circle staged many local events, so you can imagine the planning meeting with a circle of Circle women brainstorming something to alter men’s expectations of women.

The key officers of the group were Catherine Hunn and Mary Ried. They were typical of women leaders in the community. The common denominators were: their husbands were community leaders, they were important members of their churches, and they held offices in several organizations. The Hunns moved to Aspen from Leadville in 1890. Joseph Hunn opened a meat market on Mill Street, a large operation that including a slaughter operation at the edge of town.

Newspapers underreported what women did, focusing more on the men. During the approximately 15 years in Aspen, Joseph was a founder of the Red Butte Cemetery, a director for Citizens Hospital, organizer and officer for the Woodmen, fish and game warden for the county, and Chair of the Republican central Committee. Reid’s husband, owner of one of Aspen’s major bakeries, held similar community positions. The women, while usually cited only for organizing associated social events, likely were participants in much more than what was recorded in the papers.

Mrs. Murray Baker won the nail driving contest, hammering five 10-penny nails in 10.5 seconds. Mrs. Baker engaged in local politics. In 1896, she was one of the members ofthe Silver Central Committee for the Silver Party. Aspen Times publisher B. Clark Wheeler chaired the committee, and it had an equal number of women and men.

Aspen’s women found ways to involve themselves in politics not long after the Circle founding. In 1897, the Circle organized a McKinley Prosperity Ball that attracted 100 couples. The title of the ball was sarcastic, as the economy for mining towns was not as prosperous as citizens believed it would have been had William Jennings Bryan, who was pro-silver, instead of McKinley who was a gold bug, been elected.

To make the ball more interesting, adding to an evening of dancing with the local orchestra, the Circle planners offered prizes for the best costumes that spoke to the ball’s title. In an ad, they asked attendees, women and gentlemen, to dress in a way, sarcastically, “representing the McKinley wave as it has struck Colorado.”

The female winner of the ball costume contest, a Mrs. Adams, was “most noticeable” because she dressed half and half, her left side was of fine material, the other of cheap goods, worn and patched. One side of her hat was trimmed with flowers, the other with alfalfa.

The Circle met twice a month on the first and third Wednesday evenings. The Woodmen of the World is still around, but if you look through its history you do not find anything about women in the organization. One source says women were not admitted until 1957. The founder, Joseph Cullen Root, organized it in 1882 in five Western states. It was set up like other fraternal organizations to help others, but Root focused on providing financial protection for families, so he created a life insurance program through the organization, and in some groups, a burial insurance program.

The timing of the founding of the Woodmen in Aspen coincided within a few years after Colorado passed its suffrage act, so it is not surprising that while other Woodman groups did not have a women’s component, Aspen’s did. Their next cause was prohibition, not so popular in a mining town.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at


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