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Guest opinion: Give the 19th century Western suffrage movement the recognition it deserves

A painting of Seraph Young, the first woman known to cast a ballot in Utah, can be seen in the House Chamber at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
A photograph of the painting of Seraph Young, the first woman known to cast a ballot in Utah, can be seen in the House Chamber at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This guest opinion is adapted from the preface of Neylan McBaine’s book, “Pioneering the Vote: The Untold Story of Suffragists in Utah and the West.”

On Feb. 14, 1870, Salt Lake City resident and 23-year-old school teacher Seraph Young was the first American woman to cast a ballot under an equal suffrage law. Just two days earlier, the Utah Territorial Legislature had granted women the right to vote in “all elections,” and Utah women went to the polls to exercise their new right that very week.

On Aug. 26, 2020, we celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment and the movement that advocated for women being allowed to vote. There are currently several museum exhibits in Washington D.C., along with newspaper editorials, books, documentaries and events to honor the centennial of the 19th Amendment and suffrage movement. Nearly all of these fail to consider the role the West played in delivering suffrage triumphs up to 50 years before the Amendment. And none honor the 150th anniversary of the first female vote, which happened in the unlikeliest of places: Utah.

The Utah territory wasn’t alone — Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho were also home to trailblazing men and women fighting to recognize women’s right to contribute politically. In fact, by the time the 19th Amendment extended women’s voting rights across the nation, all states that had already granted full suffrage to women were in the West. Glaringly, the first 30 states to join the Union were the last to grant full suffrage rights.

If the familiar stories and images from the 20th century suffrage movement are powerful, why is it important to cast an eye back on the 19th century Western movement?

According to historian Sandra L. Myres, “Most women’s suffrage and feminist historians have almost entirely ignored the West. Writers have concentrated on the national suffrage leaders and on the history of the movement in the Eastern states. Western suffrage votes are treated as some sort of aberrant political behavior rather than as part of the mainstream suffrage movement.”

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Some historians explain the West’s behavior by noting the spirit of innovation that was both common and necessary in the frontier west. While true, the suffrage leadership of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho is also not more fully explored because the forces that drove the movement in those areas — including polygamy, temperance and even racism — are now uncomfortable, even foreign to contemporary audiences.

In contrast, the suffrage movement of the 20th century — from 1910 to the amendment’s passage in 1920 — captures our imagination much more easily. We feel kinship with the moral rightness that we see in the last decade of the fight: Women should participate in our civic governance because it is right, because women are people too. We are captivated by the mass media images that arose from the new century’s consumer culture, and the advent of modern advertising. We see in the clever slogans the birth of our own media landscape. We recognize our own brand of activism and even see reverberations today of the rage boiling just beneath the surface as we participate in annual Women’s Marches.

Susan B. Anthony (first row fourth from left) with suffrage leaders from Utah and elsewhere.
Susan B. Anthony (first row fourth from left) with suffrage leaders from Utah and elsewhere.
Utah State Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons

But the suffrage movement wasn’t ever just about voting, and the legacy it left isn’t just about voting, either.

Through the movement, women crossed the threshold of participation into public and civic life. American women living today takes for granted her ability to magnify her voice and influence. We have the suffragists to thank for that opportunity, and it was the women of the West who first exploited those platforms to give the movement a running start.

Ignoring the activities and accomplishments of the 19th century women falls into the trap of silencing women’s voices. By the time the 20th century’s Progressive Era was in full swing and advocacy for the amendment was at its height, mass media and consumer culture gave women ample platforms for sending their messages far and wide. But excavating the words and deeds of 19th century women is harder. It requires culling through diaries and localized newspapers, piecing together events and references from myriad sources and relying on descriptions of events, rather than a picture of them. Many records from this time have been lost or buried in academic collections. We owe it to these women to do the work of uncovering their words, even if it is less glamorous work than delving into the Progressive Era’s media riches.

It is a fallacy to recognize the 19th Amendment as an ending or as a beginning. It was, of course, crucially important and opened the door for most women to claim equal voting rights in every state. But in practice, many people continued to be barred from exercising their political voices because of their race, ethnicity or cultural status. Native Americans, Asian-Americans and African Americans have all had their voting rights prohibited in one way or another, sometimes only gaining access to exercise that constitutional right decades later.

If we correctly see the 19th Amendment as simply one reference point — albeit an important, high profile one — in the journey to bettering our country, we should also look to the steady drumbeat of activity that led to that point.

When I moved to Utah from New York City 11 years ago, I didn’t realize I would fall in love with my new home in the intermountain West so completely. But as a born and bred New Yorker, I also didn’t realize how entrenched Americans are in the belief that all significant events happened east of the Mississippi. We harbor images of pioneers and cowboys and ranchers and gold miners, but I have found that we underestimate the way interactions between East and West in the past have forged our political, economic and cultural structures even today.

The early examples of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho are perhaps not fully understood today, but offer the rest of the nation ample proof that American women could constructively participate in civic life. Without their trailblazing, the door leading to women’s entrance into the public sphere may have stayed shut even longer.

Neylan McBaine is the author of “Pioneering the Vote: The Untold Story of Suffragists in Utah and the West” and the CEO of Better Days 2020.