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How a Mormon pioneer woman became the nation's first female state senator

On Nov. 3, 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon was elected to represent Utah's 6th Senate District, defeating a group of candidates that included her own husband and earning the title of the United States' first woman state senator.

In addition to a two-term senator, Cannon was many things: a Welsh-born immigrant, a Mormon pioneer, a highly educated and successful doctor, a polygamous wife, a mother of three and a vocal champion for women's suffrage.

Here's a look back at her eventful life and the experiences that shaped her political career.

July 1, 1857: Martha “Mattie” Maria Hughes is born in Llandudno, Wales.

1861: At age four, Hughes emigrates to Salt Lake City, Utah, with her family as converts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, her younger sister doesn’t survive the wagon journey across the plains, and her father dies within three days of arriving in the Salt Lake Valley.

A young Martha Hughes Cannon, wife, mother, doctor, suffrage leader and first woman state senator in the United States.
A young Martha Hughes Cannon, wife, mother, doctor, suffrage leader and first woman state senator in the United States.
Deseret News archives

In the 2012 KUED documentary "Martha Hughes Cannon," her great-grandson Blaine Brady speculated these deaths profoundly impacted young Hughes, fostering an early interest in the medical field.

"I think she swore to herself that she would do something about this, that their suffering wouldn’t be in vain, that there must be a way of preventing some of these things that happened," he said.

1870s: As a young woman in Salt Lake City, Hughes funds her education in pre-medicine at the University of Deseret by working as typesetter for the Deseret Evening News and the Women's Exponent, an LDS Relief Society magazine.

1878: Hughes graduates from the University of Deseret with a degree in chemistry. Upon her graduation, she is blessed and set apart by LDS Church President John Taylor to study medicine. She enrolls in medical studies at the University of Michigan that same year.

1880: Hughes graduates from the University of Michigan medical program the day she turns 23. She continues her postgraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is the only woman in a class of 75 students. Hughes also earns a diploma from the National School of Elocution and Oratory. She is so excellent at public speaking that many of her colleagues lament her decision to not pursue a stage acting.

1882: At age 25, Hughes returns home to Salt Lake City, where she opens a thriving private medical practice in her parents’ home. She is soon called by the LDS Church to serve as a resident physician at the new Deseret Hospital. It is there she meets her future husband, Angus M. Cannon, a prominent Mormon leader and superintendent of the hospital.

1884: Hughes marries Angus Cannon, a man 23 years her senior, and becomes his fourth wife. This marriage occurs during the height of national anti-polygamy sentiment, two years after the federal government outlawed the marriage practice. Thus, the two marry in secret, with Martha not even telling her mother.

While it may seem counterintuitive for such an independent woman to enter into plural marriage, Cannon defended her decision throughout her life.

When explaining the advantageous position of a polygamous wife to a San Francisco journalist, Cannon said, "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."

July 1885: Angus is arrested for "unlawful cohabitation" and serves a six-month sentence. To avoid having to testify against her husband in federal court, Martha Hughes Cannon flees to Grantsville, Utah. She is five months pregnant at the time.

1886–87: For two years, Cannon escapes the legal issues surrounding her marriage by living in exile with her baby daughter, Elizabeth. She travels to the British Isles, France and Switzerland, visiting and learning from hospitals and nursing schools along the way.

"I would rather be a stranger in a strange land and be able to hold my head up among my fellow beings than to be a sneaking captive at home," she writes.

1888: After the warrant for her arrest expires, Cannon returns to Utah. She throws herself back into her medical career by resuming her practice and establishing the state’s first nursing school. Yet she still could not publicly acknowledge her marriage.

1893: Cannon attends the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to speak on women’s suffrage in Utah. The Chicago Record calls her "one of the brightest exponents of women's causes in the U.S."

1896: As Cannon's involvement in public life grows, she is urged to enter politics. In a highly unusual turn of events, both she and her husband, along with eight other candidates, vie for five seats in the State Senate. Martha, a Democrat, defeats Angus, a Republican, at the polls, becoming the nation’s first woman state senator on Nov. 3, 1896.

The Utah State Senate in 1897, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon standing to the left of center. Cannon, a Democrat, defeated her husband, a Republican, to become the first woman State Senator in the United States. She served two terms in the state legislature.
The Utah State Senate in 1897, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon standing to the left of center. Cannon, a Democrat, defeated her husband, a Republican, to become the first woman State Senator in the United States. She served two terms in the state legislature.
Utah State Historical Society

The election results cause some tension between the couple. A Sept. 28, 1968, Deseret News article reported that "Although (Angus Cannon) met the situation with outward humor, he did not find it easy to accept his wife's effrontery." But the two eventually reconcile, according to the same article.

1896–1900: During her two terms as a Utah state senator, Cannon focuses on her passions of health and service, introducing legislation to provide education for disabled children and to protect the health of women and young girl employees. She also helps write many of Utah’s early sanitation laws and introduces the bill that founded the State Board of Health.

Early 1900s: Cannon moves to California with her three children, seeking a better climate for her health, which was beginning to fail. In Depression-era Los Angeles, Cannon tends her garden and continues to offer her medical skills through volunteer work.

July 10, 1932: Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon dies in her Los Angeles home after being diagnosed with cancer. Mormon historian and politician B. H. Roberts, who had previously denounced women’s participation in politics, speaks at her Salt Lake City funeral. As part of Cannon’s last request, all of her diary pages are burned following her death.

While the loss of her journals is unfortunate, LDS Church historian Kate Holbrook argues that the narrative of Cannon's life as we understand it, and her lifelong endeavor to balance the demands of motherhood with a life of public service, "feels as relevant today as it did when she was living it."

Since Cannon’s death, many memorials have been dedicated in her honor, including Utah’s Health Department building in 1986 and a commemorative stamp in 1992.

In 1996, an 8-foot bronze statue of Martha Hughes Canon was erected at the Utah State Capitol to celebrate the centennial anniversary of her election. The monument, which now stands outside the Capitol building, leans noticeably — and symbolically — forward.