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How Kanab’s 1911 all-women town council went from 'disgusted' to making history

The honoring of Martha Hughes Cannon in the 2018 Utah Legislature spurred talk on women's achievements throughout the Beehive State's history.

But Cannon's climb to earn the title of the United States' first woman state senator isn't the only time Utah women made U.S. history.

With Women's History Month in full swing, check out how Kanab's all-women Town Council made headlines more than a century ago.

Unexpected election results

Mary Elizabeth Woolley Chamberlain was elected chairman of the Town Council of Kanab in 1911 and took office eight years before American women won the vote.

The nation’s first all-female Town Council included Chamberlain as mayor, Blanche Hamblin and Ada Seegmiller as councilors, Tamar Hamblin as clerk and Luella McAllister as treasurer. The women served in these positions for two years.

Reflecting on the groundbreaking election, Chamberlain said that the women initially never intended to serve in local government.

She wrote, "Our election was intended as a joke and no one thought seriously of it at the time. When election day dawned, there was no ticket in the field; no one seemed interested in the supervision of the town, so the loafers on the ditchbank (of which there were always plenty) proceeded to make up (the group’s) ticket as a burlesque, but there was no other ticket in opposition, so, of course, we were elected."

In a letter responding to an inquiry from Utah state Rep. Anna King about the election, Chamberlain further explained the unusual circumstances behind the council’s election:

"In these little towns there is not salary enough in any of the offices to justify men to devote their time to them, and as their other work calls them away from home most of the time, the affairs of the town were often sadly neglected, so on the morning of Election Day 1911 the first three men at the polls suggested that they make up a ticket of women, which they did, more as a burlesque than anything else, but we were every one elected by a large majority."

Chamberlain noted that when she first learned of her win, she was "disgusted" and felt completely unqualified. Yet her father expressed his confidence in the women, and the editor of the local paper wrote a story celebrating their competency.

Chamberlain said that after some consideration and debate, the group decided to "tackle the job and see what we could do."

Two years of progress

The women on the council achieved a quite a bit during their time in office, including "ordinances to keep stray dogs and loose livestock from roaming freely in town, a ban on slingshots, provisions for the surveying and plotting of the city cemetery and the overseeing of the construction of bridges for irrigation canals and a dike."

They passed one ordinance requiring traveling merchants to pay $2 to do business in Kanab and another fining citizens for gambling or "indulg(ing) in ballgames, foot races, horse races or in any noisy outdoor amusement within the limits of this town" on Sundays.

They also enacted numerous initiatives supporting the national temperance movement and a "clean-up day" with a $10 prize awarded to the owner of the "cleanest and best kept street and sidewalk surrounding any home."

While serving as mayor, Chamberlain kept busy with a variety of other roles as well, working as a part-time store clerk and holding several callings for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Sunday School teacher and Relief Society treasurer. She also proudly noted that she completed all of her own housework during that time.

In a 1914 article in the Improvement Era, the LDS Church’s official magazine at the time, Chamberlain happily commented on the Kanab Town Council’s successes:

"In fact, our supporters say that we have done more for the town than all the male Boards they have ever had. They urge us to run again at the coming election. … It is a noted fact that nine-tenths of the people never knew before who the members of the Town Board were, or that there even was a Board, but you can ask any child on the street who the present Board is, and they can tell you every one of our names."

An unlikely legacy

Ada Seegmiller was the only council member who ran for re-election after their two-year tenure ended. (She won but immediately resigned during the first council meeting in 1914.) Yet Chamberlain expressed hope that other women would follow their lead and run for office, insisting that women were "perfectly able to carry on the work; and, in fact, are better able, because the men are away from home most of the time looking after their sheep, cattle, etc."

Utah Historical Quarterly writer Kylie Nielson Turley concludes that ultimately the "prank election, though unsolicited and unwanted by its female participants, opened the door for an ordinary group of southern Utah women to step into elected office, manage a small frontier town, and take an extraordinary place in history."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that none of the Kanab Town Council members ran for re-election. Ada Seegmiller ran and was re-elected to her office, but she resigned during the first council meeting in 1914.