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Dianna Douglas: On a blazing hot summer day in 1848, in upstate New York, a few hundred women demanded that they be allowed to vote. It caused a media sensation.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: The common point was to dismiss them as crazy women or monsters in petticoats.

DD: The news traveled outside of the borders of the United States and into the western territory of Utah. There, the idea was met with a shrug.

LTU: Nobody took women’s suffrage seriously in that period — very few people. 

DD: One woman in Utah offered a novel reason why she didn’t need to vote. Eliza R. Snow, a wife of Brigham Young, and a defacto first lady of Utah, wrote a poem. It was an invitation for the women of Seneca Falls, New York, to come meet some “real men.”

Actor portraying Eliza R. Snow: Let those fair champions of female rights —

female conventionists come here yes in these mountain vales …

… are noble men whom woman may be proud t’acknowledge for

her own superior, and feel no need of female Congressmen.

DD: Did you catch her burn? Utah women didn’t need to vote because their men were nearly perfect. New York women probably only needed the vote because New York men were bums.

And that was that. Women voting? — not for Utah.

Fast forward 20 years, and Eliza R. Snow was fighting for a woman’s right to vote, along with nearly everyone else in Utah.

The night 150 years ago that Utah women changed history

DD: I’m Dianna Douglas, and this is Zion’s Suffragists, a podcast from the Deseret News about how Utah advanced voting rights for women in the United States.

Utah was not a player when the women’s suffrage movement began. “Suffrage” meaning the right to vote. But it would quickly go from last to first. Let’s jump to right after the Civil War. Suffrage was on a lot of people’s minds. And there was one question that was burning up the United States.

LTU: Are African American men going to be allowed to vote?

DD: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is professor emeritus of history at Harvard University. Up until this point, the only people who voted were white men. But Congress wanted to remake the whole country, from the ashes of the Civil War — better, more righteous this time. With the enslaved people emancipated, America could finally be the shining city on a hill. And there was no one from the south in Congress to stop them.

LTU: The newly constituted Congress is controlled by what, in the terms of the time, would have been radical Republicans.

DD: The radical Republicans of the era had some goals. Yes, give the formerly enslaved the vote — in fact, write it into the U.S. Constitution with an amendment. And while they were at it, give women the right to vote.

LTU: At the core of this radical Republican agenda are former abolitionists who are also advocates for women’s rights.

DD: So many goals, so much to do! Here’s their plan to do it.

LTU: The reconstruction amendments should enfranchise women and freed slaves. They run into huge conflict over that.

DD: The conflict was this: An amendment to the Constitution giving people who had been enslaved and women the right to vote probably wouldn’t be ratified by the states.

LTU: Unable to make that happen, the 14th amendment inserts the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time in terms of the right to vote, and the 15th Amendment enfranchises freed men but not women. So, this conflict leads to a lot of press coverage.

DD: People said that women voting will destroy families. Some white women were appalled. You’re going to let black men vote, and not your own wives? Back and forth, back and forth. The tiny legislature in the Wyoming territory, next to Utah, reacted to this national foment about women voting by passing a woman suffrage bill. There were almost no American women in Wyoming, so this was just a publicity stunt. Kind of a joke. Anyway the debate was happening far from the farms and orchards of Utah. And then, a single sentence in a newspaper dragged Utah in.  

LTU: The New York Times op-ed says, well, if we want to experiment with women’s suffrage, we should give Utah women the right to vote, and then we’d solve the problem of polygamy, because no woman would willingly accept that practice.

DD: I neglected to mention another item on the to-do list in Congress: Stop polygamy.

LTU: The first platform of the Republican Party targeted the twin relics of barbarism: slavery in the South and polygamy in the territories.

DD: Polygamy in the territories. That would be, among the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who had left the United States decades earlier and settled in the Western territories. Comparing polygamy to slavery in the South was really a direct attack on Utah. At this point, it was a polygamous society.

LTU: Forty percent of men, women and children in the territory of Utah lived in plural households.

DD: The most spectacular stories were one man with dozens of wives. Reality wasn’t quite that exciting. Most of the men who were in polygamous marriages had two wives.

LTU: So the Brigham Young model ...

DD: 55 wives —

LTU: … or the Heber Kimball model or even the George A. Smith model with six wives was really rare. Because there aren’t enough women. It would be impossible to do that.

DD: So along comes this clever editorial in The New York Times: “Female suffrage might perhaps be tried with novel effect in the territory of Utah … Perhaps it would result in casting out polygamy and Mormonism in general. … Here would be a capital field for women suffrage to make a start, and we presume nobody would object to the experiment.”

In other words, let Utah women vote against Brigham Young and the other polygamous men in charge and if everything goes haywire, Utah doesn’t have any congressman anyway, so no one in Washington would be affected by women’s votes.

LTU: Whether it was intended as a kind of humorous thought experiment or not, the Mormons read it and thought this is a great idea! They wanted to counter the notion that was widespread that Latter-day Saint women were somehow victims.

DD: Outside of Utah, people assumed that polygamous women weren’t choosing it, but were being forced into it.

LTU: They were coerced into a practice that was beneath the dignity of white women. They were accused of being slaves — a slavery worse than any other kind, to be enslaved in these harems — as they described them.

DD: This idea of women in Utah voting might have died right there, with a little laugh. But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints soon faced a crisis.

In 1869, a new bill passed the U.S. House that would basically decapitate the church, as punishment for polygamy. This bill was headed for the Senate, and was about to become the law. People in Utah watched with horror — it felt like a direct attack on their freedom of religion. A few women decided to fight back.

LTU: Sarah Kimball and the other women gathered in the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society hall to plan an indignation meeting.

DD: An indignation meeting was a common way back then to register your disapproval — or your indignation — at something the government was doing. Utah women wanted to send a message to Washington. So, they planned a massive meeting. The Relief Society was a women’s organization within the church, and mostly did charity work. Its mission didn’t include politics. But this was a crisis, and the Relief Society ladies needed to act.

LTU: And in the process of planning that meeting, they passed a list of resolutions. Most of them having to do with the federal assault on plural marriage. One of the resolutions was to ask the territorial legislature of Utah for the vote.

DD: So, in the 15th Ward Relief Society building — where the Vivint Arena now sits and the Utah Jazz play — Utah women decided they wanted to vote.

LTU: I mean they knew exactly what they were doing. They wanted people to know that they were intelligent, that they were articulate, that they understood their rights as citizens, and that they didn’t want to be treated this way.

DD: Should they march? Should they have famous men like Brigham Young speak? Should they send a delegation to Washington with a list of demands? No matter what, the meeting should be a media spectacle.

LTU: So only women could attend the meeting, and only women could speak.

DD: Except for newspaper reporters. They were going to be allowed in to the indignation meeting. All the plans were in place. They invited women from all over. They invited the reporters. And then they held their breath.

On a cold night in January in 1870, women began to pack into the Old Tabernacle on Temple Square, a massive assembly hall in the heart of Salt Lake City. 

LTU: Five thousand attended that meeting.

DD: There were only seats for half of the people who came. The Old Tabernacle didn’t have heat, but no matter. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich says the fire of their indignation kept them warm. Here’s an actor reading from a transcript of the meeting. Sarah Kimball, the main organizer, had clearly had enough.

Actor portraying Sarah Kimball: Have we transgressed any law of the United States?

Dianna Douglas: The audience shouted back, “NO!”

SK: Then why are we here today? The bill in question would not only deprive our fathers, husbands and brothers of enjoying the privileges bequeathed to citizens of the United States, but it would also deprive us, as women, of the privilege of selecting our husbands, and against this we most unqualifiedly protest.

LTU: One of the speakers was Amanda Smith, who had an amazing story to tell, about the massacre at Haun’s Mill in Missouri in 1839, and about losing her husband and sons to mob violence against the Mormons.

Actor portraying Amanda Smith: I saw the mob coming like so many demons … the moans of the dying and wounded were heart-rending.

DD: She’s talking about being persecuted for her religion. This happened in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before Brigham Young led the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across the Great Plains and into the Utah territory.

AS: … there was not time to bury them, for the mob was coming on us, and there were not men to dig the graves. I said anything but leaving their bodies to the fiends that had killed them. There was a deep, dry well close by, and into this the bodies had to be hurried, 17 in number, some head downwards and some feet downwards.

LTU: Apparently there were tears in the audience. Her fellow Latter-day Saint women in the audience responding.

AS: I say to you, my sisters, you are American citizens; let us stand by the truth if we die for it.

DD: Why retell these stories from 20 years earlier about mob attacks in Missouri? What’s their point?

LTU: We are Latter-day Saint women who have chosen our religion, have sacrificed for our religion, and we’re about to be attacked again. Phoebe Woodruff said if you’re going to imprison our husbands you’ve got to make your jails big enough to include us, because where my husband goes, I go too.

DD: Phoebe Woodruff was married to one of the church’s governing apostles, Wilford Woodruff. She really leans into the church’s theology of the time.

Actor portraying Phoebe Woodruff: God has revealed unto us the law of the patriarchal order of marriage, and commanded us to obey it.

LTU: I think Phoebe Woodruff was not all that happy about plural marriage. Like many women, she lived it because she believed that is what God wanted to do, or in practical terms, once it happened, she had to make the best of it. She did make the best of it, but she wasn’t always thrilled about it. But she certainly didn’t want other people telling her she didn’t have the right to make that choice.

PW: If the rulers of our nation will so far depart from the spirit and the letter of our glorious Constitution as to deprive our Prophets, Apostles and Elders of citizenship, and imprison them for obeying this law, let them grant us this our last request, to make their prisons large enough to hold their wives.

DD: And what about Eliza R. Snow, Brigham Young’s wife who was so dismissive of the fight for women’s rights in the 1850s?

ERS: Our enemies pretend that in Utah, woman is held in a state of vassalage — that she does not act from choice, but by coercion — that we would even prefer life elsewhere, were it possible for us to make our escape. What nonsense!

DD: She then suggested that Utah women DID vote, in a way — they voted on Sundays, for their church leaders.

ERS: We, the ladies of Utah, are already in possession of a privilege which many intelligent and high aiming ladies in the States are earnestly seeking i.e., the right to vote.

DD: Reading over the notes of the meeting, I’m really struck that Eliza R. Snow sounds tired of being looked down on.

ERS: If those sensitive persons who profess to pity the condition of the women of Utah will secure unto us those rights and privileges which a just and equitable administration of the Constitution of the United States guarantees to every loyal citizen, they may reserve their sympathy for objects more appreciative.

DD: This indignation meeting was the start of something big for Utah women.

LTU: The Salt Lake indignation meeting got a lot of national press.

DD: Front page of The New York Times. A rally of women asking to vote and defending their right to marry into polygamy if they wanted was too much for the newspaper reporters who saw it. The San Francisco Evening Bulletin called the meeting “one of the most remarkable that has ever congregated on the continent.”

LTU: And then immediately after that meeting, they organized and there were 25 indignation meetings in small towns throughout Utah shortly thereafter. They kept the press coverage going for quite some time.

DD: Within weeks, someone in the territorial legislature wrote a law that would give women the right to vote. It passed unanimously.

LTU: The territorial legislature passed the women’s suffrage bill, and the governor, who was a non-Mormon, for whatever reason signed it. And it passed.

DD: Also covered in newspapers across the country. What was going on in Utah?

LTU: It seemed like a brilliant ploy to sort of say, hey, these victims, we’re going to enfranchise these women. We’re not afraid of what women will do. 

DD: Utah had municipal elections two days later. A 20-year-old named Seraph Young got to the polls early on her way to work as a schoolteacher. She cast her ballot, and became the first woman to vote in Utah. She was also the first woman to vote in the modern nation —well, the first to vote legally. She certainly wasn’t the first to try.

This election was just one month after the first indignation meeting in Salt Lake City. If it seems fast to go from a protest, to a bill being written and passed and signed, to an election being held where women easily show up and vote, consider this: most American women would not vote for another 50 years.

As head of the Relief Society, Eliza R. Snow urged everyone to vote on election day.

ERS: It is our duty to vote, sisters. Let no trifling thing keep you at home. 

DD: Why did she care so much? Well, I think it was a way that people in Utah could defend their church. Voting showed that women had their own minds. And, women knew that voting raised their own status in Utah.

LTU: It was one of those happy convergence of an opportunity to assert their own importance and their own authority within the Latter-day Saint community.

DD: The Latter-day Saints who had settled in the Idaho territory, north of Utah, also got the message that women should vote. They began pushing for women’s suffrage in their legislature.

LTU: A Mormon representative from the Mormon towns introduced a women’s suffrage amendment. This was at the same time as Wyoming and Utah. It tied and didn’t pass. But it went that far. 

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DD: I should say one more thing about Harvard historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Thatcher Ulrich. She wrote the famous sentence,

LTU: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

DD: Well-behaved women seldom make history. Utah women definitely made history in 1870. If they had been well behaved after that, they might have gotten to keep the vote. We’ll tell that story next week.

(Subscribe to Zion’s Suffragists on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get podcasts.)

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