In 1895, one of the hottest debates at the Colorado statehouse was over a very intimate subject: at what age should a woman, or girl, be legally able to consent to sex?
Leading the charge to raise Colorado’s age of consent was Pueblo Rep. Carrie Clyde Holly, one of the first three women elected to the state’s legislature — and in fact to any state legislature in the nation. By the end of that year’s session, Holly would have another distinction: the first female lawmaker in the country to draft and pass a bill.
“Carrie Clyde Holly didn't just get elected to office. She got elected to office and she said, How am I going to make things better for women in the world?” said Colorado State University-Pueblo History professor Judy Gaughan, who called Holly’s agenda revolutionary.
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At the time, Colorado law said girls could consent to sex as young as age 16, which was older than in some other states, but Holly thought it should be raised further, to 21. It was an idea that aroused plenty of pushback.
“Men were very concerned that it wouldn't be fair to men who wouldn't know the age of their prostitute and would get in trouble because slutty women would blackmail them,” Gaughan said. “Much of the argument is about ‘how are we going to protect the men?’ in this ‘protect the women’ bill.”
Holly fought for her legislation every step of the way, pushing it through the House and Senate and persuaded a wavering governor to sign it.
By the time it was over, the law, which became known as the ‘Holly bill,’ had been scaled back, raising the age of consent to 18, not 21. Still, it was a significant triumph for Holly. She introduced 14 pieces of legislation, but this was the only one that was ever enacted.
Other lawmakers at times mocked and actively undermined her efforts. In one instance, she got the House to unanimously support a resolution encouraging other states to give women the vote. But on the Senate side, Gaughan said “the senators mocked women by burying the resolution,” instead, referring it to a special, and fictional, Committee of Literary Lights for a rewrite.
While Holly’s legislative successes were limited, she broke a path for women in Colorado politics that continues today. The state House has the rare distinction of being majority female, including the two current representatives from Holly’s home county of Pueblo.