LS: History Here and Now October 31, 2008

Women’s Gold Tapestry honors political pioneers

Betty Pellet in 1941 was first woman to crack the ‘good ol’ boys’ Legislature.

She was beautiful.

She had wit, intelligence and moxie.

She acted on Broadway and appeared in silent movies.

After she came to Rico in 1926 with her husband, Bob, she refused to sit still and let the world evolve without her help.

Instead, she ran in the early 1940s for the Colorado Legislature in an era when that body was made up of “good ol’ boys.”

Elizabeth “Betty” Pellet, aka “That Pellet Woman” by her detractors, was the first female legislator from western Colorado, and she served from 1941 to 1964 in the Colorado House.

Pellet is one of 18 women immortalized in the Women’s Gold Tapestry, which hangs in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol. The tapestry honors women who were integral in the settlement and development of Colorado. Pellet was chosen for the honor because she was the first female minority leader in the House of Representatives and chairwoman of the House Rules Committee.

She also spearheaded efforts to provide equal pay for women and promote child welfare.

A few years later, western Colorado’s women’s ranks were broadened by Rena Mary Taylor of Palisade, who served first as a representative and then as a senator in the 1950s and early 1960s, and by Sen. Hestia Wilson of Nucla, who served in the Senate from 1957 to 1962.

After that, males reigned supreme in county and state delegations for several years.

It was 1966 when Marietta Benge, a longtime Republican activist and former party vice chairman, ran for state representative to be defeated by a man. She was a candidate again in 1968 but lost to a man.

This all changed in 1978, when Democratic Gov. Richard Lamm was seeking his second four-year term. Youthful Democratic upstart Carol Edmonds, who obviously benefited from Lamm’s overwhelming victory, won over a Republican opponent.

Edmonds was knowledgeable and conscientious. She worked hard and did her homework. But she faced two obstacles: She was a freshman legislator, and she was a Democrat in a Republican-dominated House.

Thus, she had neither the status nor the party clout to get major bills passed, which worked against her in her re-election bid.

Also, in 1980 when Edmonds sought re-election, she faced a Republican national ticket headed by Ronald Reagan for president. Reagan won handily in Colorado and Mesa County. The political pendulum had swung the other way, and Edmonds’ Republican opponent, Vickie Armstrong, was elected. Armstrong served four terms, becoming a member of the important Joint Budget Committee before she decided not to seek another term.

Like others among the few women who served in the Legislature during the mid-20th
century, Pellet, Taylor and Wilson were, as the French say, “of a certain age.”

But both Edmonds and Armstrong were young, attractive and intelligent. They made an important point in proving that their youth and good looks didn’t pose a bar to legislative ability. And they opened the door to other young women.

On the top level of state government, times were changing as well. Democrat Nancy Dick was a resident of Aspen when she was elected lieutenant governor in 1979, the first woman to serve in that post. Former Grand Junction resident, Republican Jane Bergman Norton, served as lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2007. They are two of only four women who have held the post.

On a local note, four women opened doors to elective posts for other females.

Annie Dunston served numerous terms as Mesa County clerk and recorder. She was the only woman on county ballots for many terms and often received the most votes in the county.

Lucy Ela was the first woman to serve on what became the Mesa Valley School District 51 Board. She was a member of the board for 21 years until 1950.

Maxine Albers was named to fill a vacancy on the Mesa County Commission in 1974 and was the first female presence on that board. She was also the first chairwoman of the board in a tenure that spanned from 1974 to 1989.

Jane Quimby was the first woman elected to the Grand Junction City Council, serving from 1973 to 1981, and was the first woman mayor in the city.

Western Colorado women still have both state and national obstacles to overcome.

Mary Louise Giblin Henderson covered politics for The Daily Sentinel. She now lives in Novato, Calif.


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