We may have come a long way, baby, but we need to go further. It is more than ninety years since the 19th Amendment granted women the vote in national elections, yet Congress still rejects "equal pay for equal work." Our right to self-determination has again been under assault, and concerns for our children's education, family health care, safety, and economic security remain unsatisfied. These were all concerns a full century ago, when Helen Ring Robinson was campaigning for the state senate in Colorado. It was a time when she could declare, without fear of mockery, that government and politics were "in need of motherliness," for women, she believed, understood the discipline and compassion that was needed to address those issues.
Though women in Colorado had been voting in state general elections since 1894, the legislature had remained a select and private men's club. Robinson ran and lost an election in 1910 for state superintendent of schools, one of the few positions considered suitable for women. She was not an experienced politician. But at 52, she'd already had a substantial career in education and had achieved some social prominence. She wanted to make a difference, was clearly a charming and astute woman, and political circumstance was on her side, perhaps also a few influential friends. She became the first female senator in the state, and the second in the nation.
In her biography of Robinson, Pat Pascoe has given us a strong portrait of an exceptional woman, whose career and life has many parallels with her own. Both were teachers and journalists, professional women with a special interest in education. Both served in the Colorado Senate and had substantial progressive impact on education and family issues. Pascoe has spent years researching Robinson's writings and biographical details, and, as a doctor of English literature, has created an engaging narrative that is most fascinating for its insight and instruction about the Colorado legislative process. Pascoe's descriptions of the senate sessions and their issues and resolutions during Robinson's tenure have the details and insight of personal experience.
The context of those issues is significant and more background might have been helpful. But Pascoe provides enough so that events during Robinson's career are comprehensible, including suffrage efforts, the Ludlow Massacre, and Henry Ford's attempts to mediate European peace. A resonance with current political highs and lows is skillfully evident.
Robinson's accomplishments are inspiring, and Pascoe's account is worthy reading, but the book is short in the personal detail that gives depth to a figure. There is apparently little real information about Robinson's family, and not much more about her successful career as a teacher before her marriage. Her husband is described as a "mystery," and other than Robinson's journalism and political writings, there appears to be scant record of her life. Pascoe doesn't speculate, so Robinson is not fully developed as a character in her own story.
Nonetheless, the author does what she can to give us a sense of Helen Ring Robinson, an extraordinary woman who engaged with the world in extraordinary times. A state senator who could not vote in a national general election, she worked hard for fairness, even after she left office. Pascoe sees Robinson's sympathies and vision revealed most clearly by Robinson herself, in a prayer she wrote. It reveals her thoughtful strength, and connects us across ten decades: "Keep us in hope and courage even amid the vastness of the undertaking and the slowness of the progress, and sustain us with the knowledge that our times are in Thy hand."
Pat Pascoe is a teacher turned writer, who served twelve years in the Colorado State Senate, where she focused on education policy. She has written for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, has been a radio commentator, and an active board member for such groups as Common Cause, Denver Woman's Press Club, and the Colorado Coalition for the Arts. Her book on Helen Ring Robinson is the first to shed light on this important progressive leader. Pascoe's extensive notes and listing of Robinson's writings will be a useful resource for students of political and women's history. Visit her website.
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