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As Utahns mark women’s vote, what of ERA?

Pomp and circumstance at Capitol as 150th anniversary of suffrage celebrated

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Kelly Whited Jones, of the Utah ERA Coalition, left, and Josie Valdez, president of the Women’s State Legislative Council, right, portray suffragists at a commemoration ceremony during Utah Women’s Suffrage Week at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah political leaders gathered Wednesday in various venues of the Capitol, united in their praise for the state’s leadership in granting women the right to vote 150 years ago.

Yet amid the period costumes and unanimous passage in both the Senate and the House of a resolution honoring the female pioneers of the suffrage movement, conversations sprung up on whether the Beehive State should join others in ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, or maybe lead the way again with a new version modeled after the Utah Constitution.

The Capitol was bustling with thousands of students and dignitaries celebrating the anniversary Wednesday. It marked 150 years since the Utah Territorial Legislature granted Utah women the right to vote on Feb. 12, 1870. Seraph Young cast the first ballot under a women’s suffrage law two days later. It is also the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which protected the voting rights of people of color.

Gov. Gary Herbert signed HJR12 in the early afternoon, honoring the Utah suffragists before a packed room of legislators, activists and many women paying tribute to the day by wearing suffragist sashes.

Herbert, who became emotional at times during his speech, praised pioneers’ sacrifices and said it’s unfortunate that “we sometimes overlook the female side of the equation.”

He likened Utah’s suffragist leaders to the West’s pioneers who blazed trails for others to cross, because they didn’t just make things better in Utah — they also fought for women across the U.S. to get the right to vote.

“Today gives us a chance to review and remember,” Herbert said. “All of us, men and women, stand on the shoulders of women who went before. That stood tall and took on challenges of their time and made this trail better for those who came after.”

Utah a model for revised ERA?

Earlier in the day, House Speaker Brad Wilson said he wouldn’t back a resolution to make Utah the 39th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. But he did say Utah should be a “model” if the ERA is going to “start over,” referring to comments from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week saying the movement should perhaps get a “new beginning.”

“You know what I think?” Wilson told reporters. “If this amendment is going to start over, maybe we should take a look at the language in the Utah Constitution about women’s rights, and copy and paste that into the Equal Rights Amendment. Because I think it’s better written and more clear, and actually probably accomplishes more what the Equal Rights Amendment sponsors are trying to accomplish than what the ERA does.”

Wilson and House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said the House GOP majority hasn’t taken a position on a resolution being sponsored by Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, who hopes Utah will join 38 states four decades after the ERA was first introduced. But they suggested, if a new path is being forged, perhaps Utah could be a leader.

“If it’s going to start over, why doesn’t Utah lead out on this issue?” Shultz said.

Kwan told the Deseret News she’s still intent on running her ERA resolution, though she acknowledged the House GOP has majority control over ultimately what happens to her bill.

“I’m pushing because I think it’s an important message, but it’s really up to them,” she said.

Still, Kwan said she’s continuing to talk with legislators about her resolution.

“It’s all about the conversation,” she said. “It’s all about making sure our nation understands we were one of the first to have it in our constitution, and whatever method gets us there, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said she wasn’t aware of Wilson’s suggestion that the country turn to the language in Utah’s constitution as a substitute for the ERA “but certainly something that I would be supportive of looking at down the road is, let’s mirror what Utah does.”

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, expressed her support for the ERA, but Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, suggested that the media’s focus Wednesday should be on the celebration of women’s suffrage.

“The discussion about ERA is probably for another day. So I would hope the headlines tomorrow don’t talk about ERA, they talk about the right to vote,” Vickers told reporters. 

Henderson said during the Senate’s daily media availability that Utah’s situation helped national leaders of the suffrage movement to see the need for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution rather than waiting for states to grant women the right to vote. 

But she stopped short of saying equal rights for women should be addressed the same way.

“I don’t personally have a problem with it, but I know a lot of people who have some concerns, and I think that those concerns are probably valid and should be addressed,” Henderson said. 

She said that “it’s kind of unfortunate that we’re talking about equal rights in 2020. It really is. I know there’s a lot of people that believe that is something that should be enshrined in the Constitution, and there are those who believe that it should but maybe we need to be careful of the wording. I happen to be really proud of the fact that the Utah Constitution has an equal rights amendment in it.”

Officially marking the anniversary

The House of Representatives Wednesday morning voted unanimously to approve HJR12, a resolution honoring the Utah women who contributed to women’s suffrage. One-by-one, female legislators rose to speak in passionate support of the resolution, paying tribute to the women who fought for over a century for their voting rights.

“A big shoutout to the 100 years of women who fought for this right to vote and for Utah, who lead the way 150 years ago,” said Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights.

The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, brought her two teenage daughters with her, saying they represented the state’s future generations of women engaged in civic duty. Ballard also thanked the “great men” who helped “pave the way” for women to be able to vote.

“We have a tremendous leadership history in Utah,” Ballard said.

“It’s time for all of us to participate, get families and friends registered to vote, and be involved,” she said. “We need to continue to change history.”

The Utah Senate also unanimously passed the resolution.

Henderson introduced the legislation as the culmination of effort from hundreds of women and men across the state. She also thanked the more than 2,000 children from 40 different school who came to the Capitol to celebrate Utah’s history in the women’s suffrage movement.

“Women’s suffrage and political rights were made possible because of the leadership of visionary Utah women and men who understood that our nation prospers when each citizen has the opportunity to participate in the public sphere,” Henderson said. 

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, credited their tireless efforts fighting for equal rights for women.

“They made it possible for Sen. Henderson, for I, for all of our Democratic colleagues, to be able to serve as women in the Senate body today,” Milner said.

Utah first lady Jeanette Herbert closed the resolution-signing ceremony by honoring all of the women who made the resolution possible, calling early historical figures “visionaries and dreamers” who saw the possibilities that took the rest of the nation much longer to see.

“We can honor their legacy by continuing to encourage and support our women as they pursue education, provide for their families, and fulfill their potential — potential whether it’s in the home, whether it’s in their neighborhood communities — wherever they stand,” Jeanette Herbert said. “Women have a voice that they can stand up and make a difference.”

Walking through history

Throughout the day, students bustled from booth to booth set up around the Capitol. Women donned in period clothing, many portraying key figures in history including women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony, conversed with students as they passed and told them about important events.

Thirteen-year-old Addyson Coombs, from Kennedy Junior High School, said they’ve learned a bit about women’s suffrage in class to prepare for the anniversaries. Wednesday, she and her classmates teamed up to complete a scavenger hunt around the building where they penciled in answers pertaining to the issue. 

“I think it’s important to us because men had more things than women,” Coombs said. “(Women) couldn’t own anything — it had to go under the man’s name. That wasn’t very fair. They really didn’t have their own life. I think it’s important that women got the right to vote.”

Classmate Jared Meza, 13, said he knew a bit about women’s suffrage because of his Utah studies class, and said they came today to learn more about the many things that have changed in the past 150 years.

“That’s why we are here. We wanted to learn a little bit more about how they lived,” Meza said.

Breann Sanderson, 18, from Cedar City’s Canyon View High School, acknowledged she didn’t really know much about women’s suffrage prior to today. But, she said, learning about all that the women stood for and sacrificed to get where we are now is “amazing.”

“I thought the event was really special because as a woman, I felt very empowered. Knowing that we’ve had our rights for 150 years made me feel really good inside,” said classmate Kenzie Anderson, 16. “Someday when I have my own children I want to tell them about this day.”

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche