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When Utahns risked their bid for statehood by supporting equal voting rights for women

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Salt Lake City-County building

The Salt Lake City-County building, where the Utah constitutional convention was held in 1895.

There was a time when people in the Utah territory were desperate to become a state in the United States. 

By the seventh attempt, in 1895, Utahns had to wrestle with a thorny and highly charged question: Should women be allowed to vote again?

It is obvious now that the answer is “yes.” But things looked different in 1895. Having been rejected six times from joining the Union, the people in Utah didn’t want anything to muddy their chances. 

The Deseret News has a new podcast, Zion’s Suffragists, to retell the history of voting rights in Utah. The history is relevant today, and not just because of the big anniversaries this year — 55 years since the Voting Rights Act was passed, 100 years since the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, 150 years since American women first began voting in Utah. 

It’s relevant because the country is still grappling with who belongs in the electorate.

“Who deserves to have a voice in the political process is a question that, as Americans, we have been dealing with throughout history,”  said historian Katherine Kitterman. “Who belongs? Who is American? Whose voice matters in government?”

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

The argument against including women’s voting rights in the new Utah constitution was simple:  

“The adoption of woman suffrage is dangerous to the acquiring of statehood,” said Brigham H. Roberts, one of the representatives writing a constitution for the new state. 

Delegates from across the territory had gathered in Salt Lake City in 1895, hoping to hash out a new constitution to send to Washington. If Congress approved it, Utah could become a proper state, with privileges in the U.S. government like voting rights and representatives in Congress. 

When the stakes couldn’t have been higher, people in Utah had to decide whether to defend the rights of women. 

An editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune said that it “would make Utah a ‘freak’ state in the eyes of [those] states that opposed the franchise of women.”

“There were people who thought women shouldn’t be voting at all,” Kitterman said. “This wasn’t a crazy idea — most Americans felt this way at the time.”

Others who opposed enfranchising Utah women had a more pragmatic concern — that the political strength of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would increase when women were added to the electorate. “There was an idea that it would hurt the minority’s chances,” said Kitterman. 

Those in favor of including women’s suffrage in the new constitution knew that something like this might happen. Ellen Ferguson, the president of the Salt Lake County Woman Suffrage Association had urged her members to visit each of the men elected as constitutional convention delegates. 

“Many are inclined to hang back, saying wait till we are a State, then we will give to women suffrage,” she said. 

Women from Beaver County to Provo had answered the call. They had parades, sent petitions, encouraged both political parties to add woman suffrage into their platforms, got delegates to sign pledges. It was a massive grassroots drive all across the state.

Twenty-five years earlier, woman suffrage had sailed through the legislature. In 1870, every man in the territorial legislature had voted “yes” to enfranchising women in Utah. The U.S. government, trying to stamp out polygamy, had taken their vote away. 

With statehood, Utah women had one shot to get their voting rights back.

“Once ignored in your constitution — you’ll be as powerless to secure recognition as are we in the older states,” warned Susan B. Anthony in a letter to Utah’s leading suffragist, Emmeline B. Wells. Two states had been admitted to the Union as woman suffrage states, Colorado and Wyoming. Just two states, after decades of work for women’s voting rights. 

Susan B. Anthony’s advice came from hard experience: “Now in the formative period of your constitution is the time to establish justice and equality to all the people. That adjective ‘male’ once admitted into your organic law, will remain there. Don’t be cajoled into believing otherwise!”

Utah was very different from the “older states” where Anthony was toiling away: In Utah, most people supported women’s voting rights, both women and men. But whether to risk statehood in defending those rights was a tough question for some of the delegates. 

“If the price of Statehood is the disfranchisement of one-half of the people; if our wives and mothers, our sisters and daughters, are to be accounted either unworthy or incapacitated to exercise the rights and privileges of citizenship, then . . . it is not worth the price demanded,” argued delegate Franklin S. Richards during the constitutional convention. 

“It is woman’s destiny to have a voice in the affairs of the government. She was designed for it,” said another delegate, Orson F. Whitney, leaning on his theology. He said that the women’s movement was “one of the great levers by which the Almighty is lifting up this fallen world, lifting it nearer to the throne of its Creator.”

They debated it for two weeks. Petitions for and against woman suffrage circulated across the territory. By the time the dust had settled, it seemed like everyone in Utah had weighed in on this question. The final tally was about 25,000 signatures of people in favor, and 15,000 against. 

The wording that they were considering for the constitution was simple and straightforward:

“The rights of citizens of the State of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this State shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”

When it was finally time to vote, 75 men voted to include it, 14 voted against it, with 12 absent. The constitution would include an equal suffrage clause.

“Hurrah for Utah!” wrote Susan B. Anthony when she heard the news.

The U.S. Congress accepted the constitution of Utah, and Utah joined the Union as an equal suffrage state in 1896. 

A generation later, the Nineteenth Amendment would extend the franchise to women all over America with nearly identical language: 

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

And a generation after that, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 would widen the electorate and bring more people into full citizenship under the law. 

Discrimination at the polls didn’t end with these laws, of course. Native Americans, many immigrant groups and African Americans have worked for decades more to secure voting rights. 

In 1895, the state constitution of Utah was one step in a very long effort to make the United States a more representative democracy. 

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