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Meet America’s first voting woman: Utah’s Seraph Young

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Seraph Young casting the first vote by an American female on Valentine’s Day 1870.

A mural in the Utah Capitol depicts schoolteacher Seraph Young casting the first vote by an American female on Valentine’s Day 1870.

Courtesy Ron Fox

Seraph Young was teaching at the University of Deseret’s model school in 1870. The children in this primary school were learning to read and spell, and their 23-year-old teacher worked hard to keep them on track. 

On Valentine’s Day 1870, Seraph stopped at Council Hall on her way to work. She walked past the people giving stump speeches, past a brass band, and cast a vote in the municipal election. For the first time, women in Utah could vote under an equal suffrage law. 

The governor had signed the law two days earlier. Seraph Young was the first of more than two dozen women to vote that day.  

Young’s name soon appeared in newspapers across the country. “A granddaughter of Brigham Young’s casts the first vote,” wrote the Washington D.C. Evening Star, emphasizing the role that the members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had played in encouraging women’s suffrage in the Utah Territory. (Seraph Young was actually Brigham Young’s grandniece.)

Women’s suffrage was a wild experiment. The U.S. Constitution allowed states to decide their own voting laws. For a short time, New Jersey had allowed unmarried, property owning women to vote. But by 1807, no women in the United States could vote. 

Seraph Young’s audacity in showing up at the polls to vote in 1870 had shocked the nation. 

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

Most of Utah’s population was part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1870s, and church leaders hoped that enfranchising women would finally disprove the popular belief that women in Utah were being coerced into polygamous marriages.

“Giving them these freedoms would show the world how far advanced gender relationships in Utah among Latter-day Saints are,” said historian Katherine Kitterman. 

Outside of Utah, people were watching the suffrage experiment carefully. They were pretty confident of one thing: Women voting was going to be the end of polygamy. 

“Many thought that if Mormon women could vote, they would vote against Mormon male leaders,” Kitterman said. “They believed that (Utah women) didn’t want to be there, that they didn’t want to be living this way.”

Seraph Young and the rest of the women in Utah would confound all expectations in the years that followed and prove to be independent voters. They did not end polygamy with their votes. Instead, they voted in ever greater numbers and raised their voices in the public sphere in defense of their rights and their religion. 

They soon started a newspaper, “The Woman’s Exponent,” to give themselves a platform for speaking to the world. 

“The women of Utah today occupy a position which attracts the attention of intelligent thinking men and women everywhere,” said the inaugural edition of The Exponent in 1872. “Who are so well able to speak for the women of Utah as the women of Utah themselves?”

Suffragists from the East, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, came to Utah many times to meet women who could vote. They overcame their distaste for how Utah women were arranging their families and joined hands in the suffrage cause. 

“I would rather be a woman among Mormons with the ballot in my hands than among Gentiles without the ballot,” said Stanton. 

The women of Utah were under constant threat of losing that ballot in their hands. The U.S. Congress was determined to stop polygamy in the Utah Territory, and taking away the right to vote seemed like a fitting punishment.  

“Over and over again in our nation’s history, when people in power don’t like the way one group is voting, the solution that they can come up with is to get those people out of the electorate,” Kitterman said. 

Congress stripped all polygamous men and women of their right to vote in 1882.  

When that didn’t have the desired effect and polygamy persisted, Congress basically decapitated the church. The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 law seized the church’s property and disincorporated the church. It also disenfranchised all Utah women: polygamous, monogamous, married, single, church members or not. 

The heartbreak of this loss of the right to vote would motivate Utah women for the next decade. By the time the Utah Territory joined the United States in 1896, they would make sure that their voting rights were irrevocably written into the state constitution. 

A painting of Seraph Young hangs in the Utah State Capitol. In the painting, men in hats and suits watch her sliding her ballot into a sealed box, while women line up behind her. 

A memorial walk from Memory Grove to Council Hall will honor Young and the first women in Utah to vote on Valentine’s Day this year, the 150th anniversary of women in America first voting under an equal suffrage law. 

“There’s tremendous significance in the act of casting a ballot,” said Neylan McBaine, CEO of BetterDays 2020 and the organizer of the walk recreating Young’s first vote. “We want every Utahn to recognize that we have this incredible legacy in our DNA.”

Seraph Young slipped into obscurity after her trailblazing vote in 1870. She married and moved away, and died in the early 1900s. 

As interest in Utah’s history with women voting has grown, people have begun to piece together some details about Seraph Young’s life. A rich portrait has emerged of a woman who was eager to have a voice in government, weathered protracted personal tragedy, and stayed connected to Utah’s struggle for equal rights throughout her life.

Seraph Young was born in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, in 1846. It was a refugee camp of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ who had been forcibly removed from Illinois. She was one of nine children born to Cedenia Clark and Brigham Hamilton Young. They were were preparing to traverse the American West to find a safe place to build a new Zion. Many of the babies born in Nebraska and along the pioneer trail died, but Seraph made it to Utah. 

Seraph Young grew up in the settlements of the Great Basin, where people were scraping to grow enough food to survive. By the time she met a New Yorker named Seth Ford, Salt Lake had become a proper city, and 90,000 people lived in the Utah Territory. She married Seth Ford, a veteran of the Civil War. Seth played the banjo and had passed many nights with Union Army playing by the campfires, or drawing sketches of horses and cannons.

Seraph and Seth Ford lived in Salt Lake for a time and had three children. Her daughters Cherry and Grace grew, but Fred died as a toddler. Seth Ford was a printer, “one of the finest artisans to be found in that line of business anywhere,” said the Salt Lake Herald. But Seth had been injured during the Civil War, and his health deteriorated. He was soon blind. 

The family moved to New York, possibly to be near Seth’s family as he got sicker. They eventually resurfaced in Chicago, where they performed for nickels and dimes from people on the street. Celia and Grace were also talented musicians. In 1883, a newspaper described a dusk on the corner of Wabash Avenue and Adams Street:

“We saw two little girls, each with a banjo and a mouthorgan attached to a rest in the bosoms of their little dresses, their music, their jaunty red caps and their neat, lady-like appearance attracting attention.” 

A crowd had gathered around the girls, with Seraph and Seth Ford running the show: “We saw a man in blue, with a soldier’s cap on his head and colored goggles over his sightless eyes. He was seated on a chair, under a store window, with a little girl each side of him, playing a mouthorgan and a set of bones. Soon we saw a neat, trim little women in black passing small circulars to the hundred or so persons who had stopped to hear the music.”

Seraph and Seth Ford eventually settled near Washington, D.C. She cared for her blind and paralyzed husband for almost three decades. Cherry grew into a talented artist, and Grace was a music teacher. 

Seraph Ford stayed connected with her friends and family from Utah and often hosted them when they came to Washington. She visited with Emmeline B. Wells, Utah’s most prominent suffragist, when Emmeline came to advocate for women’s rights. Seraph’s family circumstances didn’t allow her much time for public advocacy, but she stayed interested in political affairs. 

By the time Seraph Young Ford died in 1938, voting rights for women had been written into the U.S. Constitution. American women couldn’t be turned away from the polls simply because they were women, although women and men still had a long fight to guarantee equal voting rights for marginalized groups. Native Americans, immigrants of Asian descent and people of color, both women and men, would struggle for voting rights long after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. 

Seraph Young Ford and the women in Utah who voted 150 years ago were just a few of the ordinary people who changed history.

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