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The night 150 years ago that Utah women changed history

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Leading women of Utah. Front row: Jane S. Richards, left, Emmeline Wells. Middle row: Phoebe Woodruff, Isabelle Horne, Eliza R. Snow, Zina Young, Marinda Hyde. Back row: Dr. Ellis R. Shipp, Bathsheba W. Smith, Elizabeth Howard, Dr. Romania Pratt Penrose.

An undated photo picturing the women who helped Utah women obtain voting rights. Front row: Jane S. Richards, left, Emmeline Wells. Middle row: Phoebe Woodruff, Isabelle Horne, Eliza R. Snow, Zina Young, Marinda Hyde. Back row: Dr. Ellis R. Shipp, Bathsheba W. Smith, Elizabeth Howard, Dr. Romania Pratt Penrose.

Utah State Historical Society

On a snowy night in Salt Lake City exactly 150 years ago today, women in Utah decided that they wanted a voice in the politics of the nation. 

Five thousand women squeezed into the hard benches of the old Tabernacle, and held “one of the most remarkable (meetings) that has ever congregated on the continent,” as the San Francisco Evening Bulletin called it. The women would speak for hours, railing against the “nonsense” that they were hearing out of Washington, D.C., and announcing to the world that they were ready to become political actors. 

Utah women would soon make history as the very first group of women in the country to vote. The story of how they led the charge for women’s equality in America is full of shocking twists, heartbreaking setbacks and delightful characters. Today, the Deseret News released the first episode of Zion’s Suffragists — a six-part podcast — to tell this story.

The news from Washington that had finally pushed the women of Utah into this mass meeting was a tough new law against polygamy. Women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints felt that they were under attack. The point of this meeting — an “Indignation Meeting” — was to force the government to back down. 

The point was also to get a vote. 

And why not? Wyoming had enfranchised women a month earlier. It mostly was a publicity stunt, since there were almost no American women in Wyoming. In Utah, 20,000 women could be eligible to vote, if only the government would let them. 

Women’s suffrage had never before been tried on a large scale in the United States. Women in the Territory of Utah wanted to try it.

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

“They wanted to counter the notion that was widespread that Latter-day Saint women were somehow victims; that they were coerced,” Harvard historian emeritus Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said. Most people in the 19th century assumed that women in Utah would not choose to enter polygamous marriages, but were being forced into them. The Indignation Meeting in Salt Lake City was the start of a campaign of Utah women to fight back against that idea. 

“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,” Eliza R. Snow said from the pulpit at the meeting. “What nonsense!” 

Snow was the president of the Relief Society, the women’s organization in the Church of Jesus Christ. She suggested that the people in Washington who looked down on her should “reserve their sympathy for objects more appreciative.” 

The Indignation Meeting was planned a week earlier by the women in the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society, a local chapter of the women’s organization. As they planned their meeting, they determined that they would ask the territorial legislature of Utah for the vote. 

These women wanted their Indignation Meeting to have maximum impact. No men were allowed into the tabernacle. Except, conveniently, for newspaper reporters. 

“Like all political protests, it was staged for an audience,” historian Katherine Kitterman said. 

The women who would speak at the Indignation Meeting were not all living in polygamous marriages. But they were all adamant in defending their right to freedom of religion. 

“They wanted people to know that they were intelligent, articulate, that they understood their rights as citizens,” Ulrich said. “They chose their speakers very carefully. They chose women who were articulate, and women with a story to tell.”

Wilmarth East, for example, appealed directly to the Constitution: “I am an American citizen by birthright and, having lived above the laws of the land I claim the right to worship God according to the dictates of my own conscience and the commandments that God shall give unto me.” 

Another speaker, Mary McMinn, said her father had fought in the Revolutionary War with General George Washington, and she “claimed the exercise of the liberty for which he had fought.” 

At the Indignation Meeting, they proved to each other and to the rest of the world that they were ready. “It was a great show of political organization and force,” Kitterman said. 

The staging was perfect. A public defense of plural marriage did indeed surprise people. Newspapers across the country covered the meeting.

“They landed on the New York Times front page,” Kitterman said. 

The New York Herald was stunned: “It will not be denied that the Mormon women have both brains and tongues. Some of the speeches give evidence that in general knowledge, in logic, and in rhetoric the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondom are quite equal to the women’s rights women of the East.”

Dozens more indignation meetings were held all over Utah in the weeks that followed. 

“They kept the publicity going for quite some time,” Ulrich said. The women of Utah were not going to back down. 

The territorial legislature of Utah quickly fell in line. They wrote a women’s suffrage bill, and passed it unanimously within a month. Two days after the governor of the Utah territory signed the bill, women in Utah showed up at the polls and began to vote. 

Their campaign for the right to marry as they wished soon became a much wider campaign for women’s rights. 

After the first Indignation Meeting in Salt Lake City, the planners came back together to talk about how to educate women on becoming informed citizens. And they resolved to thank the governor of the Utah territory for signing their voting rights into law. 

The federal government would battle against polygamy in Utah for the next few decades, into the next century. Utah women had found an effective way to make their voices heard and their preferences known in the fight.

Dianna Douglas is a Washington, D.C.,-based journalist and podcaster.