The headline: "Election Returns, Salt Lake City and County." Deseret News, Nov. 4, 1896
In Utah, the 1896 election was a historic affair. Three women were elected to the state's second Legislature since statehood, including a female senator who was not only first in Utah but first in the country.Even more startling, Martha Hughes Cannon defeated her husband, Angus M. Cannon, on her way to the Utah Senate. Two others of the "fair sex," Eurithe K. LaBarthe of Salt Lake City and Sarah Elizabeth Nelson Anderson of Ogden, were elected to the Utah House.
The national debate over whether the country should adopt gold, silver or "bimetals" as the national monetary standard took the headlines, but Utah's women voters took the day.
The newspaper did not make specific mention of the female legislators, but it did note that the majority of those who voted in the election were women. In Salt Lake City, of 17,631 registered voters, 9,035 were female.
"The women's vote was fully as large in proportion to that of the men, if in fact, it was not larger. Ladies were first at the polls," the story said. A subhead noted that "Women put the cross up by the rooster (the symbol of the winning Democratic Party) and let it go at that."
The political rhetoric that went before had been intense. Salt Lake newspapers took opposing sides along party lines.
The Salt Lake Tribune supported Angus Cannon; the old Herald supported Martha, or Mattie, as she was most commonly known. After a biting Herald article that suggested she was the better of the two candidates, the Tribune offered this advice to Angus:
"We do not see anything for Angus M. to do but to either go home and break a bouquet over Mrs. Cannon's head to show his superiority, or to go up to the Herald office and break a chair over the head of the man who wrote that disturber of public peace."
Women in politics was not new to Utah. The territorial government had granted women the right to vote in 1870. Only Wyoming was ahead in women's suffrage. But when the Edmunds Tucker Act of 1887 was passed, Utah women were disenfranchised, probably to give the territory's non-LDS population more politcal clout. Women's ballot privileges were restored with the ratification of Utah's Constitution.
Women all across the country were waging the suffrage war, and several Utah women, including Martha Cannon, were at the forefront of that battle. Prominent female LDS Church leaders were invited several times to address national forums on the issue.
But old traditions die hard. Many feared that women would simply double the votes of their husbands because they couldn't really think for themselves.
Well-known early LDS writer -B.H. Roberts seconded another writer in warning women that as "queens of the domestic kingdom," they should avoid dabbling in politics at risk of "unsexing yourselves." He was concerned that if women could vote, it would influence Utah's non-LDS population, which tended to be more anti-suffrage, to oppose the then-pending Utah Constitution and end hopes of statehood.
Pro-suffrage women vocally reminded Utah's Constitutional Convention delegates that they wanted their right to vote restored. They packed hearings and hovered around the convention hall. They served on party committees and formed political clubs. Both major political parties recognized the potential influence of women and wooed them with promises of suffrage as the Utah Constitution was being framed.
The women elected in 1896 were representative of a breed of Utah women who were determined to have a voice in politics:
Martha Hughes Cannon:
The most interesting of the 1896 female candidates, Cannon had a fascinating life as a physician, polygamist wife, community and civic worker and politician.
Born July 1, 1857, in Llandudno, Wales, she came with her family to Utah about 1860 as a convert to the LDS Church. An ambitious and unconventional young woman, she decided she wanted to be a doctor. She worked as a typesetter for the Deseret Evening News to earn money for her education. She earned a degree in chemistry from the University of Deseret and then, in keeping with the customs of that day, was "set apart" by church President John Taylor to pursue a medical education.
She graduated from the University of Michigan medical program in 1880 on her 23rd birthday, then continued studies in elocution in the East for a time before returning to Utah. While working at Deseret Hospital, she met Angus Cannon, a member of the hospital's board, and became his fourth wife.
The marriage occurred at the height of anti-polygamy sentiment in Utah. Angus was arrested for "unlawful cohabitation" and served a six-month sentence, being released Dec. 14, 1885.
For a couple of years, Martha was one of a group of "exile wives" who left the country to protect their husbands from such legal problems. With her baby daughter, Elizabeth, she spent time in the British Isles, France and Switzerland, making good use of the time by visiting hospitals and nursing schools while chafing to get back home.
By the summer of 1888, she was back in Utah. She established the state's first nursing school and became active in politics. In 1893, she attended the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago as a speaker. The Chicago Record called her "one of the brightest exponents of women's causes in the U.S." She also appeared before a congressional committee on behalf of women's suffrage.
Though the church had by then discontinued the practice of polygamy, she defended it in an interview with a San Francisco journalist: A plural wife, she said, was not as much a slave as a single woman.
"If her husband has four wives, she has three weeks of freedom every single month. . . . Somehow I know that women who stay home all the time have the most unpleasant homes there are. You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels and I'll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother."
The 1896 election pitted two headstrong and determined Cannons. The final vote was 11,413 for Mattie and 8,724 for Angus. Only one Republican was elected to a state office in that Democratic rout.
Upon her election to represent Utah's 6th Senate District, she wasted no time in putting her issues before fellow legislators. She sponsored a bill for compulsory education of deaf, mute and blind children; another creating the State Board of Health; yet another requiring that employers be considerate of the health of their female workers (such as providing stools for them to sit on when not occupied with work.)
If people were worried about women being rubber-stamps for their husbands' political opinions, they needn't have worried about Mattie. She was frequently at odds with Angus over her votes, despite his being furious about it.
In the early 1900s, Martha Cannon moved to California with her children, seeking a more healthful climate. She died there in 1932. One of the speakers at her Salt Lake funeral was B.H. Roberts, who had disparaged the potential influence of women in politics.
On June 12, 1986, Utah's new Health Department building was named in her honor, and on Feb. 12, 1992, the Utah Legislature passed a resolution proposing a commemorative stamp in her honor in conjunction with the coming centennial.
Eurithe K. LaBarthe:
LaBarthe had been a teacher and school principal, but when she came to Salt Lake City in 1892 with her husband, an express company official, she became best known for her association with the Ladies Literary Club. She directed the plans for construction of a clubhouse, which opened Jan. 1, 1898.
She served as chairwoman of the House Education Committee. The bill for which she was best remembered, and which was pointed to by some as the type of frivolous legislation that could be expected of women, was the "High Hat Law." The bill required that women attending any indoor place of amusement as a spectator remove any headwear "tending to obstruct the view of any other person." Penalties ranged from $1 to $10.
Though some scoffed at the law, it was defended by a Ladies Literary Club historian, who wrote 25 years later that "Only those who can recollect the high hats, the broad hats, the waving plumes and nodding flower gardens that women carried about on their heads 30 years ago, and who remember how utterly impossible it was to enjoy a performance at the theatre if you happened to sit directly behind one of these monstrosities can fully appreciate how great a public benefactor Mrs. LaBarthe really was at the time."
She was unsuccessful in getting support for a child curfew. She also introduced a resolution asking that the federal government turn over to Utah the old Industrial Home on 500 East. The home was built as a refuge for women and children fleeing polygamous marriages but was not much used. The government refused, and a few years later, the building was sold.
LaBarthe left Utah shortly after her service in the Legislature and continued to busy herself with club work. On a visit back to Utah in November 1910, she died at the age of 65.
Sarah Elizabeth Nelson Anderson
Described as a "naturally strong woman, mentally and physically, and one of the most prominent and popular women in Ogden City and Weber County," she had married a physician, Porter L. Anderson, at 17. He died in 1888, leaving her with five children.
The enabling act passed by Congress to permit Utah to write a constitution as a prelude to statehood did not specify who could vote for ratification or for the state's first officers. Since the Edmunds Tucker Act had left Utah women unable to vote in national, state and local elections, there was a legal question about their ability to participate in the statehood ballot.
Anderson decided to challenge the matter and went to Ogden's 2nd Precinct and asked to be registered as a voter. Deputy registrar Charles Tyree refused because she was female, so she went to court. The case set off a legal tug-of-war, with the most notable lawyers in the territory divided on either side.
She won the first round in the District Court of Ogden, but the case was immediately appealed to the Territorial Supreme Court, where two of three justices agreed that the enabling act had not reversed the Edmunds Tucker Act relative to women's voting. So women sat out the ratification election and were not able to vote again until the constitution was in place.
She died Dec. 22, 1900.