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Famous Colorado Women by Eleanor Ayer

Review by Martha Quillen

History – February 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Famous Colorado Women
by Eleanor Ayer
Published by Adventure Books/Renaissance 1995
(Original copyright 1981)
ISBN: 0939650061

READING EPSTEIN’S BOOK for children reminded me of an older Colorado history book for children which I found, upon checking, was still in print. Eleanor Ayer’s book about Colorado women offers some great photos, some old-fashioned line art, and some interesting illustrations of homes and workplaces. Ayer’s prose also seems more likely to engage the young reader than Epstein’s. For example:

MOTHER JONES 1830 – 1930


Miners’ Friends

If you had been alive about 1900 and gone to a parade, do you know who you might have seen? A little old lady dressed all in black with flowers pinned to her dress and a big hat over her white hair. That little old lady was Mother Jones, or by her real name, Mary Harris Jones. She looked like somebody’s grandmother but she fought like a soldier. Mother Jones fought for the working people. She fought for people who worked in factories. She fought for coal miners…

At one factory, Mother Jones worked with two children, six and seven years old. The children had to get up at 4:30 in the morning. They had black coffee and dry bread for breakfast. At 5:30 they went to work. By noon, they could take a half-hour rest, but then it was back to work until 7:00 that night. For all this, they made ten cents a day! Their father made 40 cents a day! “This is terrible,” thought Mother Jones…

To accompany this entry, there’s a portrait of Mother Jones, a photo of Jones marching in a parade, a photo of her with children, and a photo of a huge crowd gathered to hear her speak. The entry also includes a biography and two photos of Josephine Roche.

Ayer’s book, however, doesn’t highlight nearly as many women as Epstein’s, and it had one flaw I found irksome. Ayer includes Mattie Silks among her historical women, and in doing so she resorts to euphemistic explanations that seem downright laughable.

MATTIE SILKS 1848-1929 Red Light Queen

Most of the men who rushed to Colorado for gold in the 1800s left their wives and girl friends at home. “The Wild West is no place for women, dear,” they said as they kissed their ladies good-bye. But when they got to the West and saw nothing but other men, a lot of them changed their minds. “It sure would be nice to see a pretty face once in a while,” many men said. That’s how the Red Light Districts started in the mining towns.

The Red Light District was the part of town where the pretty young girls lived…

I suspect that a lot of enterprising youngsters have noticed that Mattie Silks was neither particularly pretty nor very young. And most of those kids have probably figured out that Mattie’s girls offered a lot more than the author implies.

But even so, the book has great photos and highlights many of Colorado’s important women, including Clara Brown, Isabella Bird, Emily Griffith, and Florence Sabin with the more popular legendary figures like Baby Doe and Molly Brown.

I think most kids will like this book, and they’ll certainly enjoy the pictures. But in the end, Famous Colorado Women doesn’t include nearly as many women as Epstein’s History of Colorado Women for Young People.

Although personally I’d pick the book that’s more fun — because it’s all too easy to dispel a child’s interest in history — there’s also something to be said for knowing more about modern Colorado women. So I leave the choice to you.

–Martha Quillen