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Zion’s Suffragists: Episode 2 — A woman’s right woman

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The cover art for “Zion’s Suffragists,” a Deseret News podcast that tells the story of how Utah women became the first to vote in the United States.

The cover art for “Zion’s Suffragists,” a Deseret News podcast that tells the story of how Utah women became the first to vote in the United States.

Jeremy Ames, Boncom

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


Dianna Douglas: A few days after Utah women first won the vote, Sarah Kimball was ready to make a confession. At an all-women’s meeting, in the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society building in downtown Salt Lake, Sarah Kimball took the floor. She had waited a long time, she said, and now that Utah women were voters, she was ready to openly declare herself a woman’s rights woman.

A lively discussion ensued. I have plenty of rights, insisted Margaret Smoot. Anything else would be beneath the sphere of women. “But as things progress,” she said “I feel it is right that we should vote.”

Willmirth East wasn’t having it. Here’s what she said ... from the meeting notes: “I have never felt that woman had her privileges. I always wanted a voice in the politics of the nation, as well as to rear a family.”

And a lot of the room agreed. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that the 15th ward relief society was a sleeper cell of women’s rights women. These women began teaching classes all over Utah on civics, history, political science. It worked. In the first election after women gained suffrage, 25 women voted. Six months later, thousands of women showed up to vote in the general election. 

RUTH MAY FOX: Your name? Ruth May Fox. 

Your Age? 103.

When did you come to Utah? In August 1867.

DD: Ruth May Fox was thirteen years old when she walked to Utah with her dad. 

RMF: We had only been here about eight days when we was stopping with friends, when father got a job in that factory.

DD:  The frontier broke down a lot of the traditional roles that constricted women. Ruth worked with her dad and her stepsister at a woolen mill near Salt Lake City. The mill was owned by the president of the church, Brigham Young. 

RMF: One day, Brigham Young — and I think this is the nearest I ever got to Brigham Young — he came out to see how things was going in the factory. And I was working, running in and out with the girls skirts and he said to the supervisor that was showing him things, he said, “Don’t you think you could get that little girl to wear boys’ clothes?”

DD: Get that girl out of that skirt and into some boy’s clothes. 

RMF: You see, he saw the danger of the skirt. Now, I say that’s all the contact I had direct with Brigham Young.

DD: Ruth May Fox was doing the same dangerous work with the machines as the men. She began to wonder if she shouldn’t be getting paid as much as the men. Sure enough, Ruth May Fox became another woman’s rights woman. She would later join hands with women across the country in the struggle for the right to vote.

America’s most famous women’s rights women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, soon came to Utah.

Carol Cornwall Madsen: They wanted to see this group of 20,000 or more women who could vote. 

DD: Carol Cornwall Madsen is professor of history emeritus at Brigham Young University. Women’s suffrage was still a fringe movement at this point. Most people — women and men — thought it was crazy. 

CCM: Here was a good outpost for women’s suffrage. They were on their way in California to assist in voting rights for women there.

DD: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony didn’t exactly get warm receptions when they traveled around the country, preaching women’s rights. They were often shouted down and laughed at in public meetings. They were mocked in political cartoons. They were hung in effigy. Utah must have been a shock. They were hosted by the mayor of Salt Lake City.  They were met at the train station. And they were given a very big public platform to speak. 

CCM: They spoke in the old tabernacle, not the current one.

DD: Thousands of people came to the tabernacle, a massive assembly hall on Temple Square, to hear the famous suffragists. Many brought their babies with them. 

CCM: Elizabeth Cady Stanton made herself non gratis from that point on, because of the talk she gave, that once women had that political power of the vote, she hoped that they would throw off the oppression they had been living under with polygamy. 

DD: Bold move, Ms. Stanton. The only way to irritate this particular group of women even more would be to suggest they learn a little bit about family planning.

CCM: Elizabeth Staton did speak about birth control, because she saw what happened, particularly in families that had so little income, and child after child came into the family. Of course abortion was ... I mean it was a criminal offense. So, birth control was what she advocated. 

DD: Don’t get stuck on what women used for birth control in the 1800s. They had their ways. Let’s just say that Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not know her audience.

CCM: They felt she wasn’t the person to come back ever again. 

DD: She apparently didn’t appreciate the babies, either. She suggested that someone pass out a syrup to quiet them, so that people could hear the speakers. The visiting eastern suffragists weren’t a total bust.

CCM: They really liked Susan B. Anthony.

DD: Actually, they loved Susan B. Anthony. She would defend Utah women into the next century, regardless of how they arranged their families. Elizabeth Cady Stanton came around to the women voters in Utah, too. Yes, polygamy was oppressive to women, she decided, but monogamous marriage in the 1800s was, too. Back then, married women in America not only couldn’t vote, they couldn’t get a divorce, couldn’t have their own money, couldn’t sign a legal document. They were really trapped in their homes, relegated to the shadows. 

Katherine Kitterman: One of the arguments against giving women suffrage was that women would vote the way their husbands tell them to. There was this idea that women were not independent actors. They’re too emotional. They don’t know anything about politics. They’ll just do what their husbands tell them to do. 

DD: Katherine Kitterman is a Utah historian. There was an easy way to refute this argument:  if women voted against polygamists in Utah, and ended the entire practice of polygamy, Susan B. Anthony and her friends would have a rock-solid case that women voting was good for society.  

Women in Utah did not shake The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by voting. If anything, they doubled the strength of the Latter-day Saint vote in Utah. The party in Utah that wasn’t getting those votes wasn’t happy. 

KK: The opposition party, the Liberal Party, started writing newspaper articles about how women were voting illegally, saying that women who were not naturalized citizens were voting, or women were voting who are too young. These arguments that we see over and over again in history. 

DD: The Liberal Party actually sent a petition to the U.S. Congress, asking them to disenfranchise Utah women. From the outside, the women’s suffrage experiment in Utah looked like a failure.

KK: By the time that congressmen back east saw that women were voting and nothing was happening to polygamy, they started to call it a degrading influence.

DD: A newspaper in New Jersey wrote, “What is the use of women’s suffrage if it is to be used to bolster up an institution so degrading to the sex and so demoralizing to society?” 

KK: “Reform Utah elections.” And that was code for Kicking women off the voter rolls.  

DD: Utah women weren’t about to let this happen. The more that Utah women were attacked, the more powerful and relevant the women’s organization in the church, the Relief Society, became. The Relief Society soon began publishing a newspaper. It was called the Woman’s Exponent. In the first edition, they explained why they needed a newspaper. 

Woman’s Exponent: The women of Utah today are engaged in the practical solution of some of the greatest social and moral problems of the age, and a powerful interest is manifested throughout the United States, and the entire civilized world, to learn from reliable sources the views honestly entertained by them on these questions.

DD: Here they are, the women’s rights women of the Utah territory, about to tell the world what they believe are their economic rights, their educational rights, and their political rights. 

EXPONENT: That women may help each other by the diffusion of knowledge ... the publication of Woman’s Exponent, a journal owned by, controlled by and edited by Utah ladies, has been commenced.

DD: The Exponent was a suffrage newspaper — the only suffrage paper published in the West. It was also a local paper. The first edition had a report about Brigham Young’s 72nd birthday celebration, reports on how much money the Relief Society had raised, a poem. It also had an article arguing for equal pay for equal work. The paper was read by women all over Utah — those who subscribed shared with those who didn’t. 

KK: Almost every time there was a proposal in Congress an anti-polygamy law that would disenfranchise women, these women would send out a call in the Woman’s Exponent, and there would be meetings across Utah Teritory adopting the same resolutions, to speak with a united voice, sending signatures on a petition maybe to be sent to congress. 

DD: One newspaper writer in Utah at the time said the Exponent was more powerful “than all the newspapers in Utah put together.” Here’s how the paper responded to one proposal to disenfranchise women in 1878. 

EXPONENT: For eight years we have exercised our rights. What have we done that the privilege should be taken from us? … We have been moderate in all things, rejoicing in our emancipation, thankfully accepting the blessing as a precious right. The women of Utah have improved rapidly since receiving that blessing; They have leaped upward … The franchise here in Utah is developing powers in women that will astonish the world. 

DD: Utah women soon demanded a change to the U.S. Constitution. The Exponent sent out a call, and the Relief Society soon had 7,000 signatures from women across Utah, demanding that all American women have the right to vote. 

EXPONENT:  The object of these petitions is to obtain the same right to the ballot as enjoyed by men. At the present time, men of every class and color are entitled to vote and elect men to office.

DD: I should stop her to point out that, technically, men of every class and color were not entitled to vote in 1878 — no native Americans, no Asian Americans, no one from many of the immigrant groups in the US. African Americans should have been able to vote, but people went to exceptional lengths to stop them. But I’ll let her make her point. 

EXPONENT: Are not women free born as well as men? And why should they be governed without consent, or taxed without representation? 

DD: This petition did not lead to a change in the U.S. Constitution. Not yet. One of the major problems that Utah women faced when trying to fight for changes in the government was pretty fundamental: Utah didn’t actually have any representatives in the U.S. Congress.

KK: These women can vote on a territorial level, but they can’t vote for president, they can’t vote for a representative that has voting rights in Congress. 

DD: While the Church battled Congress over polygamy, Utah women were in grave danger of losing the vote. In Washington, the fight was reaching a breaking point. The Church looked for help from the United States Supreme Court. In 1879, the Supreme Court ruled against the Church. They said the Constitution no more protected polygamy in the name of religion than it protected human sacrifice. 

Two women from Utah, Emmeline B. Wells and Zina Young Williams, boarded a train to Washington, D.C., and walked into the White House. They asked President Rutherford B. Hayes to let women in Utah continue voting, independent of the polygamy problem.   

EXPONENT: He listened with interest, though he sometimes wore an amused smile as he was reproached for his neglect in failing to mention the political, civil, or social rights of women.

DD: Emmeline Wells and Zina Young made a strong case that the women of Utah would suffer if the government came down hard on polygamy — families broken apart and children left without fathers. President Hayes, with his amused smile, asked the women to put their case in writing so that he could study it in more detail. So that’s exactly what Emmeline did. 

EXPONENT: Is this not progress, when the chief of a great nation is willing to receive from a band of women, appointed by women, suggestions as to affairs of state, and a reproach for past omissions?

DD: Emmeline Wells and Zina Williams couldn’t find quite enough friends in Washington. Congress wrote the strictest anti-polygamy bill yet. The Edmunds-Tucker Act would strip all Utah women of the right to vote, disincorporate The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and seize all its property. Women in Utah sent petitions, held meetings, wrote articles, fought against the bill with everything they had. Emmeline Wells went to Washington again, this time with a petition signed by thousands of women in Utah. She gave it to the President, Grover Cleveland, and asked him to let Utah women keep voting. 

KK: The only way they have to make their voices be heard is to get together this show of force. To get some newspaper publicity and send a petition to Congress that has thousands of signatures to make these representatives listen.

DD: The Edmunds-Tucker Bill passed. It was devastating to Utah. After seventeen years of voting, Utah women were disenfranchised. All of them — church members and everyone else. 

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

DD: The loss of the right to vote was a heartbreak in the pages of the Exponent. The writers and editors were ever believing that history was on their side.  

EXPONENT: We were citizens of the United States, armed with that all potent yet peaceful political weapon, the ballot, and we challenge the world to show where in a single instance we yielded it wrongfully ... We had committed no offense against the sacred franchise and had violated no law of our country.

DD: The government prosecuted people living in polygamous marriages with a religious zeal of its own. Thousands of people were arrested, either for polygamy, or for refusing to testify against polygamists. Some families left for Canada or Mexico. Women in polygamous marriages fled Utah, hiding away wherever they could — some all the way to Europe. The new president of the Church, Wilford Woodruff, told the world in 1890 that polygamy was over. He read a manifesto saying so in a massive gathering of the Church in Salt Lake City. The church would no longer perform polygamous marriages, although it recognized existing plural marriages as valid. Some women were deeply relieved. Some were afraid of what would happen to them and their children. Everyone recognized that it was a momentous change to how they practiced their religion. 

The Exponent had defended polygamy for 18 years. Strangely, it had very little to say when Wilford Woodruff made the announcement. 

EXPONENT: This conference, which was one of great significance and vast importance to the Latter-day Saints, will long be remembered by the assembled multitude. 

DD: On the bright side, the official end of polygamy meant that Utah could try to join the United States again. After six rejections, the territory would make another attempt to become a state. With statehood, Utah women saw an opening to get their right to vote back. All those brave women’s rights women were going to need some brave women’s rights men. That story next week.

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