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Zion’s Suffragists podcast: Episode 4 — She is the better man

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: Election Day: November 1896. Voters in Salt Lake have a choice of 10 candidates for Utah state senate. The five with the most votes will become senators. There are five Republicans and five Democrats. One candidate is African American. Two are women. Two of the candidates are married to each other.

Katherine Kitterman: Women were now for the first time were able to run for office and could see themselves as people holding the franchise and having the power to choose their representatives, but also people who could then represent the public and act in the public behalf.

DD: This was beyond the wildest dreams of the people working for women’s rights outside of Utah. Women in the public square, asking other women and men for their votes, shaping society. It also might have been the worst nightmare of the people who did not want women voting.

This is Zion’s Suffragists, a podcast from the Deseret News about how Utah advanced voting rights for women in the United States. I’m Dianna Douglas.

In January 1896, President Grover Cleveland signed off on Utah joining the United States as the 45th state.

People spilled out into the streets of Salt Lake City to celebrate.

Here’s how the Woman’s Exponent, a newspaper in Utah, described the scene:

Exponent: Cannons firing from the highest points near the city, bells ringing, whistles blowing, stars and stripes floating from all available places, bands of music playing ...

DD: This is an actor reading from the paper. Seventy thousand people lived in Salt Lake City at this point. It was big enough for an all-day party when the home team wins.

Exponent: The air fairly echoing with shouts of joy from the multitude on that never-to-be-forgotten day that brought freedom to women as well as men, the full rights and privileges of citizenship.

DD: Susan B. Anthony telegrammed her congratulations: “We all rejoice with you that Utah is a State with her women free and enfranchised citizens.”

Katherine Kitterman: Some wording that I have in front of me from women’s diaries: Ruth May Fox said, “We felt it a great day in the history of Utah.” Emmeline B. Wells said, “It was too good to be true that we have equal suffrage.”

DD: This is historian Katherine Kitterman. The Utah constitution guaranteed voting rights to citizens, regardless of gender. More than 200,000 U.S. citizens lived in Utah. But. There was a loophole. A very large one:

KK: When we’re talking about citizens here, even now and especially back then, there were a lot of racially discriminatory laws that governed who was considered a U.S. citizen. So when we say that citizens had the right to vote, that excluded a lot of groups of people, including Native Americans, who were not considered citizens until 1924.

DD: Thousands of people living in Utah were American Indian. Statehood and women’s suffrage brought no additional benefits to them.

KK: That also excluded immigrants from Asian countries, who were legally barred from applying for citizenship.

DD: All those people from China who built the railroad? Sorry. Couldn’t vote.

KK: And then of course we know that women of color, women and men of color, often faced other barriers in exercising their right to vote.

DD: A few hundred African Americans lived in Utah when it became a state. Among the groups that were guaranteed the right to vote were African American women. Katherine Kitterman is still trying to see how well Utah delivered on this promise.

KK: We actually have been doing some research to try to pin down what the experience was like for women of color. So for example, black women who lived in Utah, there weren’t very many, but as far as we can tell they had a Republican club called the Colored Woman’s Republican Club. That was the term they used for themselves at the time.

DD: During this time in America, most suffrage groups kept African American women out. This colored woman’s club was about more than just voting rights — it was about lifting African Americans in multiple ways.

KK: They were encouraging women to go and register and vote. And we know that people were talking about which way black people in Salt Lake City would vote, men and women.

DD: Utahns had just shuffled into the two national parties — Democratic and Republican. Which party to join had became a major topic of conversation around Utah. African Americans, often aware of the Republican Party’s stand against slavery, gravitated that way. Here’s how The Salt Lake Tribune reported on a crowded meeting of the Colored Woman’s Republican Club — read by an actor.

Salt Lake Tribune: Mrs. I.C. Brown was the first speaker. She scored the Democratic Party on its position on the race question, and its treatment of the colored people in the South, and exhorted the women to rise up against the principles of that party, which had fostered slavery and free trade.

DD: Ms. Brown’s speech also included a warning: poor people and people of color might need to know their rights come election day.

SLT: She emphasized the necessity for registering, and to beware of statements made by certain registrars that colored ladies, as well as working girls, were not entitled to register.

KK: While there were certainly additional difficulties that black Utahns faced in registering and casting ballots, we see that they were part of that process, that they were pushing those boundaries, that they were participating.

DD: Emmeline Wells, leader of Utah’s suffragists, joined the Republicans. Most of her friends joined the Democrats. She thought splitting the electorate into parties was deeply unpleasant. But she wanted to make a mark in state politics, after traveling around the country for a woman’s right to vote. So, Emmeline Wells put her name on the ballot, and began a campaign to become the first woman in America elected as a state senator. She would face fierce competition from one of her proteges, Martha Hughes Cannon.

Thirty years before Utah became a state, 30 years before this election, a destitute family from Wales pulled into the Salt Lake Valley, after walking across America. Martha, or Mattie, as she was known, 4 years old, had left New York with her mom, dad and two sisters. But, only one of her sisters had made it. Their baby had died a week earlier, as they walked through Wyoming. And then, another tragedy: Mattie’s dad died two days after they arrived, and her mother was left a widow, just 28 years old. From the start, Mattie was drawn to the idea of healing.

Jenny Reeder: She had an intense empathy for death, for women, and for women’s health. That sort of guided her through her life.

DD: This is Jenny Reeder, a historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mattie Hughes and her family scraped enough of a living to survive in Utah in the 1860s. Mattie, it turns out, was brilliant.

JR: She went to the University of Deseret, and studied chemistry or premed.

DD: It’s called the University of Utah these days.

JR: She earned money by working as a typesetter for the Deseret News and the Woman’s Exponent.

DD: The teenager working for the Woman’s Exponent didn’t just line up the keys backwards to print the text of the paper. Emmeline B. Wells mentored her in the cause of women’s rights. Working at the paper one day, Mattie learned that the University of Michigan had begun accepting women to its medical school.

JR: She paid her way to go from Utah to Michigan to Pennsylvania for medical school. She thought that it was a good idea to study oration as well as medicine because she thought that health would improve immensely for women if she was able to give popular lectures about it.

DD: Women and children died young all around her. Life expectancy was about 40 in the 1800s. So many sicknesses could be stopped with clean water, or basic hygiene. Mattie Hughes Paul, M.D., came back to Utah and got to work. She set up a nursing school. She was the resident physician for the new Deseret Hospital — it’s called LDS Hospital today.

Then, she fell in love with an administrator at the hospital: Angus Cannon. He was 20 years her senior. He also had three other wives, but no matter. This was love, and they got married.

The federal government was coming down hard on polygamy at this point. Angus was arrested, and went to jail. Mattie was subpoenaed, and she fled. She and her infant daughter went all the way to Europe, and stayed for two years.

When things calmed down, Mattie came back to Utah, took up medicine again, and lectured on women’s rights. Soon enough, Utah became a state. Mattie joined the Democratic Party, and also decided to run for the state senate. Angus joined the Republican Party. He decided to run for the state senate. A well-known polygamist competing against his fourth wife was pretty awesome. But also not totally crazy for Utah.

KK: When she was running against him, in Utah papers, they just took sides, and the Republicans endorsed the Republican, which was Angus, and the Democrats endorsed the Democrat, which was Martha. In fact, one of the Democratic-leaning papers said something like, Martha is the better man of the two. Let her go to the Legislature, and he can stay home and manage home industry.

DD: Ouch. On Nov. 2, 1896, women and men across Utah voted in state, county, and national elections, and they voted for president.

KK: Two women were elected to the state House of Representatives, Sarah Anderson and Eurithe LaBarthe, and one woman, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, was elected to the state senate. There were 11 women who won county offices across the state. Those are mostly county auditors, treasurers, recorders, things like that.

DD: Mattie Cannon woke up the next morning with more than 11,000 votes. No woman in America had ever been elected to a state senate. But, she had won! All five Democrats won in that particular race, and all five Republicans lost, including Angus Cannon and Emmeline Wells.

The women in the Legislature got to work immediately. Mattie Cannon wrote bills that still affect everyone in Utah today.

JR: She started the first state Department of Health, and she served on this board of health to stimulate and encourage local boards of health. And other designs to improve sanitary conditions, water supply and disease control.

DD: This is what happens when doctors start writing laws.

JR: She established the state school for the deaf and the blind. She established a pure food law. So, she was really interested in clean water supply, in contagious diseases, and in equal opportunities from the very beginning, both for women and for people with disabilities.

DD: The women in the Legislature worked together to carry each others’ bills for health and education. And every time there was a vote that would affect women and children in Utah, the men would find their desks covered in flowers.

KK: They would scatter yellow petals on the desks, yellow flower petals on the desks of the Legislature before these votes would happen on the bills that they had sponsored — yellow flowers are a symbol of suffrage — to remind people that we have the power of women’s votes behind us. Don’t ignore what we want to do.

DD: Emmeline Wells lobbied, too, to raise the age for a girl to be married from 14 to 18 years old. She warned the legislators: “If one of you men dare to refuse to raise that age of consent to at least eighteen years, I will see that you never get another woman’s vote for any public office as long as you live in Utah!”

So they did. Emmeline said: “It was because we have the franchise and the men know it.”

In 1898, Mattie Cannon travelled to Washington, D.C. Women’s suffrage was stalling in the rest of the country — It had been almost 50 years since American women had first started a movement for the vote in Seneca Falls, New York. The leaders of the suffrage movement were getting old. And still, just Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming allowed women to vote. Four states. So, Mattie went to the Capitol, and spoke to yet another room full of men. What’s it like out there in Utah, where women vote?

Martha Hughes Cannon: Even those who opposed equal suffrage with the greatest ability and vehemence would not now vote for repeal. It has proved to the world that woman can, when allowed to do so, become a most powerful factor in the affairs of the government.

DD: Mattie’s testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 15, 1898 — read by an actor. She brings up the arguments that these guys made against giving women the right to vote. And then swats them away.

MHC: None of the unpleasant results, which were predicted, have occurred. The contentions in families, the tarnishment of woman’s charm, the destruction of ideals, have all been found to be but the ghosts of unfounded prejudices. Women have quietly assumed the added power which always was theirs by right, and have so conducted themselves that they have gained admiration and respect while losing none of their old-time prestige.

DD: People were talking about Mattie Cannon running for the United States Senate.

JR: However, she had a baby in 1899. This was a time of post-manifesto.

DD: Polygamy was supposed to have ended nine years earlier, by a manifesto from the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mattie was obviously still married to Angus Cannon, if she was pregnant.

JR: So her husband was fined and she and the baby went to California.

DD: Just as she was getting started, Mattie Cannon’s political career was over.

Another group of women from Utah was off to Washington, D.C., that same year, 1899. Utah women, secure in their own right to vote, felt compelled to fight for women outside of Utah. And that required a lot of cross-country train tickets.

A Hawaiian woman named Hannah Kaaepa was in the group this time. She and her family had joined the church and moved to a Hawaiian settlement in rural Utah a year earlier.

Hawaii had just become a U.S. territory. And so, the Queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, asked that Hawaiians have a vote in the United States. Hannah Kaaepa went to Washington in the hopes that women in Hawaii could have a vote, too. Hannah brought gifts for the National Council of Women: flower leis. At the height of her speech to the council, she began to speak in her native language. She gave the flower leis to the leaders, Susan B. Anthony, May Wright Sewall, and Anna Howard Shaw, and asked them to remember Hawaiian women in their suffrage work.

Queen Liliuokalani was also in attendance that day. After Hannah’s speech, the queen invited Hannah and her Utah friends to dinner. Hannah Kaaepa and Queen Liliuokalani knew that they had an uphill battle for voting rights for Hawaiian women — facing both racism and sexism. Nevertheless, they persisted.

When Susan B. Anthony died in 1906, there were still just four states in America where women could vote. She was buried with a flag with four stars, for Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. On her deathbed, she bequeathed her gold ring to Emmeline B. Wells, as a token of their lifelong friendship. Emmeline Wells was president of the Relief Society at that point, the leader of tens of thousands of women in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Jenny Reeder says this was a golden age for Utah women’s history. She is always finding strange, surprising stories, hiding in plain sight.

JR: I love that in Kanab in the early 20th century, women ran for the city council and filled all the positions of mayor and city council.

DD: The Kanab mayor and town council posed for a photo in the early twentieth century, all of them wearing long, dark pioneer dresses. The red desert buttes of Southern Utah are behind them. On their agenda was to do something about the stray cows in Kanab, and all the slingshots and gamblers in town. The women in this photo are smiling — some are almost laughing. Honestly, they all look a little surprised that they won.

Next week, we meet women from Utah who weren’t willing to wait for voting rights to come state by state. They wanted a constitutional amendment, and were tortured and jailed for asking.

I’m Dianna Douglas. See you next week.

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