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Winning the vote: Many women dedicated lives to suffrage - and succeeded 75 years ago

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Today's a time to celebrate and to remember. On Aug. 26, 75 years ago, women in the United States were given the right to vote. Or rather, that right was restored to them. Prior to the Revolution and the Constitution, women who owned property in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island were allowed to vote. (Yes, they could own property then, too, - that right was also taken and restored years later.) During the constitutional convention women were left out of the document. They lost their right to vote and it was not returned until 1920 - 133 years after the Revolution. Thus the struggle for suffrage began.

Over the next 50 years, suffrage was undoubtedly on the minds of many American women and men. However, it was not until 1848 and the Seneca Falls convention in New York that women's individual voices became an organized chorus.The first phase of the women's movement began around 1830. And it was at this time that women first came together, as a group, through churches and charity functions. As they began to work together and accomplish things, they began to branch out and work on different issues.

Most of the causes women fought for were social issues such as education and the abolitionist movement. In fact, many suffragists started out as abolitionists. Women were driven into the social and political stance. Fighting for abolition led many women to question their own status in society. They were fighting for rights, like the vote, for African-Americans, yet it was a right they themselves didn't have. And they began to fight to do something about it.

The suffragists were not flashy, radical or menaces to society. Nor were they the women of aristocratic families. They were typically white, middle class women who fit society's image of a "lady." They could only be identified by the banners they wore, the signs they held and the colors they dressed in (white and green for suffrage). These were women fighting for a cause they believed in, a cause many dedicated their entire lives to.

In 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls convention after they were not allowed to participate in a conference in London because they were female. This first women's convention was attended by about 300 people.

At the convention, Stanton demanded the right for everyone to vote. She adapted the Declaration of Independence and announced that "all men and women are created equal." Stanton took the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and pulled them forward in time to apply to everyone.

Stanton met Susan B. Anthony a few years later. And it was Anthony who actually went through the country and built the organization.

The fight for suffrage was not easy. Women had to raise funds, which were primarily collected in small amounts. Women led marches on Washington and suffrage parades. They launched 484 campaigns to get legislatures to submit the suffrage amendment; 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write suffrage in at the state level; 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include women's suffrage; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt suffrage planks into the party platform and 19 campaigns with 19 consecutive Congresses.

A lot of attention was given to the suffrage amendment when it entered the floor of Congress in 1918. The men of Congress took this issue very seriously. Every man was there to vote. Some even left the hospital to take part. The room was absolutely quiet. Women were waiting in the corridor as Congress cast its votes. Could this be it? Was it possible it might pass this time? A woman quietly began to sing a hymn. Soon all joined in. The amendment passed the House by only one more vote than needed. It took another year and a half for it to pass the Senate.

Hundreds of women fought their entire life, thousands gave many years of their life and hundreds of thousands gave as much as they could. It was a continuous progression that left the young suffragists able to vote and end the struggle, and it left the ones who initiated it dead by the time the victory finally came.

The fight for suffrage was a little different here in Utah. The suffrage amendment passed quietly. Women had been voting consistently here since 1896 when women's suffrage was written into the state constitution. However, Utah women still went through the same types of struggles that suffragists in the East did.

Women's suffrage received a lot of attention in Utah. Reformers and suffragists in the East thought it might be a good idea to experiment with suffrage in the territory of Utah. Their main idea was that if suffrage was granted in Utah it would end polygamy and maybe eliminate the Mormon religion altogether. Congress even thought about granting women in Utah the vote so that they would vote polygamy down. The reformer's idea was that there was no way that the liberal view of suffrage and the confining marital status of polygamy could exist in the same environment. They were wrong.

The Mormons were amused by all the fuss the nation was giving to suffrage in Utah. In fact, the Mormons favored suffrage. George Q. Cannon, editor of the Deseret News said that women's suffrage was an opportunity for the Mormons to be an example to the world. There were many women and men who worked for suffrage in the territory, but the two that stood out were Charlotte Ives Cobb Godbe and Emmeline B. Wells.

Godbe was the fourth wife of William S. Godbe, who was also a major part of the early women's movement in Utah. William was later excommunicated from the LDS Church, and Charlotte divorced him some years later. Charlotte, however, kept her religious faith. Her mother was Brigham Young's fifth wife, and Charlotte was raised as one of his daughters. She made women's suffrage her life work.

Wells was a prominent leader of the polygamous women in Salt Lake City. There was always a struggle and some competition between Godbe and Wells. While Godbe was a feminist, Wells was known as a polygamous wife. Godbe worked for suffrage because she believed women had the right to participate in government. Wells worked for suffrage to promote Mormon women, Relief Society and goals of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Wyoming granted women suffrage in 1869. Brigham Young was impressed by their actions and called in the Utah Territorial Legislature on Feb. 9, 1870, to introduce a suffrage bill. The bill was signed by acting Governor Mann on Feb. 12, 1870. The Mormons wanted women to play a role in shaping the territory.

The first woman known to cast her ballot in Utah was Seraph Young, grandniece of Brigham Young. And don't forget Godbe. In 1871 she became the first woman with voting rights to address the suffragists in the east. She spoke in Boston's Tremont Temple about the women of Utah.

Although Congress had initially been in favor of the vote in Utah, it became evident by 1887 that women were not going to vote polygamy out. So they passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, taking away the right to vote for Utah women.

Led by Godbe, Wells and another Utah suffragist, Sarah Kimball, the women of Utah continued, once again, to fight for suffrage. The Utah constitutional convention was held in 1895. The hottest topic of debate was women's suffrage. Should it be included in the state constitution or not? The majority of Mormons believed it should, while non-Mormons weren't quite sure.

In the end, suffrage won, and it was included in the constitution when Utah became a state in 1896. So, women in Utah have had the state constitutional right to vote for nearly 100 years.

Thus, while it may be impossible to talk with someone who was able to vote in that first Utah election and also impossible for women today to experience the things the suffragists in Utah and the nation did, today's women can appreciate the work or these earlier crusaders.

The women of our past, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, fought hard for a right that many women now take for granted. A right that has existed in the nation for a mere 75 years. An average lifetime. And think of the power it has given us.

There are things we all attribute to the suffragists; their struggle was long and hard. It took a lifetime of dedication and belief, of hope and patience and the knowledge that one day they would succeed. And they did. For all of us.