When I look at the cover of People Magazine in the checkout line, my first thought isn’t “shocking!” or “wow, that’s terrible!” it is “who is that?” My second thought, if the line hasn’t moved, is why should I care whether she is a) having a baby with her guitar player boyfriend, b) planning a lavish million dollar wedding with said guitar player, or c) leaving the guitar player for a football star? While the life and hard times of starlets (even when I have no clue who they are) make for easy reading after a tough workday, they do not sate a deep hungering to learn about women who are truly inspirational. With March being Women’s History Month, it is time to find that inspiration in the rich history of great Colorado women.
Driving past Sabin Elementary in Denver or Sabin Middle School in Colorado Springs, one might think “who is that?” The schools are named after Dr. Florence Rena Sabin (1871-1953) of Central City Colorado. That schools bear her name is appropriate not only for her contribution to science but that it was her hope that she would be an “encouragement to other women, especially to young women, to devote their lives to the larger interests of the mind.”
Sabin was a trailblazer in a field of medical research which was dominated almost exclusively by men. After graduating with a BS from Smith College in 1893, Sabin went on to study at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine where she was one of fourteen women in a class of 45 students. Later she became the first female faculty member at Johns Hopkins and the first woman to attain full professorship. In 1923, Sabin became the first woman to be appointed full member at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research where she made major contributions to the study of tuberculosis. Sabin returned to Colorado in 1938. Over the next decade, she served as chair of the Health Committee of Colorado's Post-War Planning Committee, chair of an Interim Board of Health and Hospitals of Denver, and Manager of the Denver Department of Health and Charities. Her efforts to improve sanitation and health regulations in Denver resulted in a significant reduction in the incidence of tuberculosis and syphilis.
Ever given blood at the Bonfils Blood Center and wondered for whom the state’s first blood bank was named? Helen Bonfils (1889-1972), a newspaperwoman and philanthropist, helped found the Belle Bonfils Blood Center which she named after her mother. Bonfils took over management of the Denver Post when her father passed away in 1933 and over the decades served as secretary-treasurer, president and chair of the board. Bonfils was renowned for her giving and helped build the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Bonfils Memorial Theater, the Holy Ghost Church, and the Belle Bonfils Blood Center. She also gave to the Central City Opera, University of Denver, Denver Zoo, Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Dumb Friends League. Her sister May was also a philanthropist.
The “Who’s is that?” of the Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver is obvious. Emily Griffith (1868–1947), a teacher, moved to Colorado when she was in her 20s. She petitioned the Denver School Board to open a free school for adults that would provide basic education and training in job skills. More than 2,300 adults signed up for classes when the Opportunity School first opened in 1916. Now called the Emily Griffith Technical College, the school has served more than 1.6 million students.
Emily Griffith the educator, Dr. Florence Sabin the scientist, and Helen Bonfils the philanthropist and newspaperwoman are just a few of the great woman in Colorado’s history. Some, like Sabin, were born here. Others, like Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir only spent a few years in our state. Philanthropist and Ambassador Holly Coors moved here as a young woman and stayed a lifetime. Biographies of great Colorado women can be found at the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.
This Women’s History Month is the perfect time to check out the who’s who of Colorado’s history. Why stop there? Great women across this nation from colonial times to the present time contribute mightily to the intellectual, artistic, humanitarian, political, scientific, and cultural state of Colorado and the nation. We should know their names and honor their legacy.