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Martha Hughes Cannon blazed trail in Utah politics

In 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon spent a total

of $35 in the campaign that led to her election as a member of Utah's

fledgling state Senate.

It was a seminal moment in U.S. politics. In that election, Cannon

became the first woman in America to be elected to any state senate.

The fact that she defeated her husband in the election made her victory

part of Utah's folklore.

As a pioneer doctor, a champion of public health, and a polygamist's

wife who was also a leader in the suffragist movement, Cannon carved

out a unique place in the annals of the state's history.

The Martha Hughes Cannon Health Building was dedicated in her honor

in 1986. An eight-foot bronze statue of her was installed in the Utah

Capitol Rotunda in 1996, 100 years after her path-breaking election.

The statue was recently re-installed on the Capitol grounds following

the building renovation.

Photo researcher Ron Fox has culled the newspaper and other photo

archives, and many of those photos can now be seen on

Martha Maria Hughes was 2 years old when her family converted to The

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and emigrated from Wales to

New York. A year later the family crossed the Plains to Salt Lake City,

burying Mattie's 21-month-old sister in an unmarked grave beside the

trail. Her father died days after reaching Salt Lake City in September

of 1861.

Martha Hughes was working as a schoolteacher at the age of 14 and

worked her way through the University of Deseret as a typesetter for

the Deseret Evening News and the Women's Exponent, an LDS Relief

Society magazine.

After two years of pre-med studies, she was blessed and set apart by

President John Taylor of the LDS Church to study medicine and headed

off to the University of Michigan, where she graduated with a medical

degree on her 23rd birthday, July 1, 1880. She studied for two more

years, earning a degree in pharmacy and oratory.

When she returned home, she became a resident physician for the

newly founded Deseret Hospital, where she met hospital superintendent

Angus M. Cannon. Angus Cannon was president of the LDS Salt Lake Stake,

which at the time included all of the wards in the Salt Lake valley. He

was also 23 years older than Martha Hughes, and a practicing

polygamist. She became the fourth of his six plural wives in 1884.

Their marriage came two years after the federal government outlawed

polygamy, and in 1886 she and her daughter, Elisabeth, traveled to

Michigan and Europe for two years to avoid furnishing federal marshals

with proof of her polygamous marriage.

After Cannon returned, she became an advocate for public health and

women's suffrage — which is what led up to the momentous election of


Technically, Angus and Martha Cannon didn't run against one another,

but were among a group of 10 candidates — five Republicans and five

Democratic-Populists — running for five at-large seats in the Senate.

Angus was running on the Republican ticket and Martha on the

Democratic. An article in the Aug. 5, 1970, Deseret News explains the

election results:

"All five Democratic candidates, benefitting from the popularity of

William Jennings Bryan, who headed the ticket, were elected, including

Dr. Cannon, who trailed the ticket. Although her husband ran ahead of

all but one of the five Republicans, he was defeated."

The election caused a temporary rift in the marriage.

"Although (Angus Cannon) met the situation with outward humor, he

did not find it easy to accept his wife's effrontery," wrote an

unidentified reporter in the Sept. 28, 1968, Deseret News. "The two

became reconciled, however. During Dr. Mattie's second term in the

Senate, she bore her husband another a child, a daughter."

Cannon served two terms in the senate and later served on the Utah

Board of Health. She eventually moved to California for her health. She

died in Los Angeles in 1932, and her body was returned to Utah for