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Church History Museum exhibit celebrates Relief Society’s role in Utah’s suffrage movement

SHARE Church History Museum exhibit celebrates Relief Society’s role in Utah’s suffrage movement
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Large photographs mark the entrance to the Church History Museum’s new exhibit “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote” in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Before speaking at the opening of the Church History Museum’s new exhibit, “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote,” Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, took a quiet tour.

Standing near a quilt from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and in front of a life-size black-and-white photo of early Relief Society sisters, Sister Bingham praised the persistence of those women who had to fight for the right to vote — not only once, but twice.

“They just kept working,” Sister Bingham said. “They just kept working.”

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An anti-polygamy autograph quilt is displayed as part of the Church History Museum’s new exhibit “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote” in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. The Women’s Home Missionary Society was a Methodist organization that supported the 1882 Edmunds Act, which, among other things, took the right to vote away from polygamous men and women. To show their gratitude for the new law the society members gathered signatures from across the country and assembled the quilt for the bill’s sponsor, Vermont Sen. George F. Edmunds.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Sister Bingham was joined by Utah Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, who co-chairs the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Oversight Committee, in kicking off the new exhibit celebrating the role of the Relief Society organization as part of Utah’s suffrage story at the Church History Museum Thursday evening.

The new exhibit, located on the museum’s second floor, will run until early 2021. It will be one of many suffrage celebrations across the United States during 2020 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote nationwide. The year 2020 also marks the 150th anniversary of when Utah women first voted.

The exhibit features historical artifacts, artwork, documents, interactive kiosks and activities for visitors of all ages. Among many interesting items, some on loan from descendants and historical societies, are a secretary desk and accompanying autograph book used by Cannon, Utah’s first female state senator; a number of dresses worn by prominent Utah women; an anti-polygamy autograph quilt; Utah’s 1870 suffrage legislation; a letter from national suffragist Susan B. Anthony, with a copy of Anthony’s biography inscribed by her secretary to the Relief Society women “who were loyal and helpful to Miss Anthony to the end of her great work.”

The exhibit demonstrates how integral women, with their individual talents and abilities, are to the work of the church, Sister Bingham said, as well as showing how a group of inspired individuals can band together and accomplish something good.

“The women who started the suffrage movement worked together. They were individuals that were feeling strongly about a topic, and they came together and worked for the good of the community,” Sister Bingham said. “I think you see that today and I think each one of us can take from that example and say, ‘I may be one, but when we gather together, we can accomplish great things.’”

Utah’s suffrage history starts with the organization of the Relief Society in 1842, which opened doors of opportunity for Latter-day Saint women, providing an organizational structure and framework for sharing information and the political action that came years later, according to the exhibit.

In February 1870, Utah became the second territory after Wyoming to grant female citizens the right to vote, but because Utah’s next election came before Wyoming’s, Utah women became the first to legally vote under an equal suffrage law. Utah women voted for 17 years before federal anti-polygamy laws removed the right, then reclaimed voting rights in 1896 when statehood was granted.

Henderson was a co-sponsor and actively involved in helping to pass legislation last year for the Cannon statue to represent Utah in the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. She was thrilled to unveil a photo of the in-progress sculpture, being created by artist Ben Hammond, for a small audience in the museum’s auditorium.

“Oh, she’s going to be beautiful,” Henderson said. “We want her there for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.”

Henderson hopes the Cannon statue will help to remedy the “undeserved, bad reputation” Utah has from those who have “forgotten our history.”

“It’s unfortunate that we have forgotten the incredible things that happened in our past, how our ancestors stood up for religious freedom and for what was right, for equality, and that we were the first women in the nation to vote under universal suffrage law. I think that’s so cool and so special and it’s so sad that we’ve forgotten about that,” she said. “I’m excited that we’re finally talking about this.”

The opening also featured music from the “Utah Woman Suffrage Song Book” printed in 1891. Men and women in the audience came dressed in clothing from the suffrage period, including large hats and purple, white and gold sashes bearing the words, “Vote for Women.”

Tiffany Bowles, a museum educator who spearheaded the exhibit project over the last three years, hopes people will be surprised as they learn the history of the Relief Society and Utah suffrage.

“A lot of people don’t know about the pioneering role that Utah women played in the suffrage movement. I hope that visitors will be inspired by these women who had been through a lot in having to leave their homes in Nauvoo and come here to Utah,” Bowles said. “But they were women of action. So they organized, they worked together to make things happen. Suffrage was just one of those things.”

For more information about the “Sisters for Suffrage” exhibit, visit history.churchofjesuschrist.org.