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White House honors first woman to vote — in Utah and in the U.S.

Ceremony remembers Seraph Young Ford as women’s suffrage pioneer

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Russell Rice Jr., left, speaks as his granddaughter, Hope Rice, right, listens during a ceremony honoring Utah’s Seraph Young Ford at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Ford was the first woman to cast a ballot in the United States. Hope is Ford’s youngest-living descendant.

The White House

SALT LAKE CITY — For decades, the story and legacy of Seraph Young Ford has been a little-known gem of Utah and American history.

So much so, that even some of her own descendants had no idea the significant role she played in women’s suffrage until Utah historians tracked them down. So much so, that even her own name was misspelled on her headstone marking her final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery — where she happened to be buried, laid to rest there along with her husband, Seth Ford, who was a Civil War and Union Army veteran.

But Tuesday, Seraph Ford’s legacy was honored at a national level — with hopes her story will permeate American history as it should have when she died more than 80 years ago.

Utah dignitaries, including Gov. Gary Herbert, joined White House officials and the family of Ford’s youngest-living descendant, her great-great-great-great-granddaughter, 9-year-old Hope Rice, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Tuesday.

The small ceremony honored Ford’s legacy as the first woman to vote in Utah — and the U.S. — and celebrated the replacement of her headstone with the correct spelling of her name: Seraph, not Serath.

Hope’s grandfather, Russell ‘Rusty’ Rice Jr., who lives in Maryland, where Ford moved after Utah, told the Deseret News the ceremony was “absolutely” inspiring for his granddaughter.

“She loved it,” Rice said, describing how Hope fully understands the weight of her great-great-great-grandmother’s legacy and what it means to her and when she’ll be old enough to vote.

“Fifty years from now, she’ll be 59,” Rice said. “She’ll be a mature woman. And maybe she, too, will have done great things by then.”

The ceremony had originally been planned by the group Better Days 2020 for March, Women’s History Month, in a year marking the 150th anniversary of the first vote cast under Utah’s women suffrage laws. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the ceremony was delayed.

“We’re honored to be here today to meet with Seraph Young Ford’s family, who many did not even know their role in history, and remind ourselves of the opportunity we have of being pioneers,” Herbert told reporters in a press call after the ceremony. “We have the ability to, in fact, smooth out the trail for those who came before us to build bridges, to help those that come after have a better life.”

Herbert recognized Ford as a Mormon pioneer who moved to Utah in 1847, and as a pioneer for being the first woman to cast the first Utah ballot on Feb. 14, 1870. She was first in a line of 25 women. It’s not known whether she knew she would be the first woman voter in the Utah Territory — and the first in the U.S. — before Congress 17 years later repealed Utah’s women’s suffrage laws. In 1896, Utah reinstated women’s right to vote when it achieved statehood. That was 23 years before Congress passed the 19th Amendment.

The day she cast her vote, Ford was 23. She was teaching at the University of Deseret. She was the grand-niece of Brigham Young. After her vote, she moved from Utah to Maryland in the late 1870s. Though her historic vote made headlines across the country, she slipped into obscurity after she died in 1938.

But thanks to the efforts of Better Days 2020, a Utah-based nonprofit dedicated to popularizing Utah women’s history, Ford’s legacy has regained a foothold in history and recognition from national officials.

“Today we not only recognize Seraph Young for her work and pioneering and setting a good example and being the first woman to vote in Utah and American history,” Herbert said, “but also the idea and concept of going out and being a pioneer and doing our work to make it better for those who come after us.”

National security adviser Robert O’Brien in a statement issued Tuesday said he was “honored to pay my respects” to Seraph Young Ford.

“The determination and spirit of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement continues to inspire the fight for greater rights for all,” O’Brien said.

Tiffany Greene, education director for Better Days 2020, said Ford’s name and the trailblazing role she played was not even known until Better Days began diving into the history. When the group found her headstone at Arlington National Cemetery and realized the misspelling, they petitioned White House officials to fix the headstone. About a year later, the headstone was replaced. Tuesday’s ceremony marked an official celebration to that endeavor, as well as a national recognition of Ford’s rightful place in history.

“It’s a victory for Utah women to finally get to tell our story on a national stage,” Greene told the Deseret News. “We have this really rich legacy of Utah woman leadership, and getting to honor it in such a special way is really meaningful.”

Utah Sen. Deidre Henderson, who is the running mate of Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, the Republican nominee to succeed Herbert as Utah’s next governor, also attended Tuesday’s ceremony.

“When Seraph Young became the first woman in America to vote under an equal suffrage law on Feb. 14, 1870, I’m sure she had no idea that her simple act of civic duty would set in motion events that spanned generations,” Henderson posted on Twitter.

Henderson thanked historians at Better Days 2020 for researching Ford’s life, and for petitioning the White House to have her misspelled name on her headstone corrected and for alerting them “to Seraph’s pivotal role in America’s women suffrage history.”

Henderson said “the best part” of the ceremony was meeting 9-year-old Hope, who had just recently learned her great-great-great-grandmother was Ford. During the ceremony, Hope was handed down the legacy of her ancestor to carry on into the future.

“I’m grateful that the inspiring stories of Seraph & other important women of the past, are finally being told,” Henderson tweeted.

Rice, Hope’s grandfather, said when Ron Fox, a historian with Better Days 2020, first contacted him, he thought for sure he had the wrong family.

“No, no, you’ve got the wrong guy,” Rice recalls saying, having never heard of any connection to Ford. But when Fox traced her to Cherry Ford White, Rice’s grandmother, Rice said, “The hair stood up on my arms.”

White was Ford’s daughter.

“What a ride it’s been since,” Rice said, adding that he’s “proud to be associated” with her.

“A single person can change history if they’re the right person,” Rice said. “And I ended up being part of it accidentally.”