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Martha Cannon's legacy looms large as Utah elects more and more women

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As she stares at a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon destined for the nation's capital, Jen Robison says she can't really find the words to describe what it means to her.

Robison, the chief of staff for Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson and a member of the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Oversight Committee, says she's drawn to Cannon's commanding stance, one that depicts her determination and strength. Cannon's gaze shows her vision forward — like a trailblazer.

"The true greatness of this sculpture to me — I can't articulate with words," Robison says. "I feel it in my heart."

Jen Robison, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson’s chief of staff and a member of the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Oversight Committee, speaks in front of a statue of Cannon during a press conference to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first Utah woman elected to public office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Jen Robison, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson’s chief of staff and a member of the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Oversight Committee, speaks in front of a statue of Cannon during a press conference to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first Utah woman elected to public office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

It's now been 125 years since Utah's first election as a state. Cannon was among 14 women elected on Nov. 3, 1896, becoming the first woman to serve as a state senator anywhere in the country.

Better Days, a nonprofit organization focused on women's history, celebrated the monumental anniversary with a ceremony next to Cannon's statue, which remains at the Utah Capitol until the U.S Capitol allows events and ceremonies again. When that day happens, Utah will replace its statue of inventor Philo T. Farnsworth inside the National Statuary Hall Collection, with the statue of Cannon.

The organization also used the anniversary to announce a new Cannon history tour for students to learn more about the female leader and other powerful women in Utah history.

"Utah's always been a place for trailblazing women. ... We hope that (history) inspires people today, bringing it forward to the present," said Tiffany Greene, the education director for Better Days.

The legacy of Martha Hughes Cannon

Cannon held the Senate position for four years. During that time, she advocated for public health care since she was also a doctor. The Utah Department of Health, which she helped create, has its headquarters named after her. Cannon also pushed for women's rights nationwide, given that she was elected two decades before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

"She was described by one Chicago newspaper as one the brightest exponents of woman's cause in the United States," said Rebekah Clark, historical director for the nonprofit Better Days.

Wednesday's event was held a day after Election Day 2021. While Tuesday night's municipal election results are unofficial for the next two weeks, current results show that women will be mayors at three of the four, and seven of the 10 largest cities in Utah, beginning in 2022.

The list could include West Valley City Councilwoman Karen Lang, who currently leads in that city's mayoral race over fellow city councilmember Steve Buhler, 58.5% to 41.4%. If those results hold up, she will become the first woman to serve as mayor of Utah's second-largest city since it was incorporated in 1980.

That's in addition to Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson — the second woman to serve in that position — and the growing number of women who hold state legislature or other high-ranking municipal jobs.

Greene is hopeful that these examples show women continue to play a larger role in government. She said it's the result of a growing push for more equal representation in politics. Pointing to Cannon and other women in early Utah politics, Green says it's nothing new; rather, it's "almost in (Utah's) cultural DNA" to elect women in leadership roles.

Meanwhile, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, says she's excited for the women destined to hold office next year following Tuesday's election. They will join women already in office from all sides of the political spectrum that Romero said she admires for breaking "stereotypes for who can serve."

All of it, she says, goes back to women like Cannon.

"When I think of Martha Hughes Cannon and the history she made 125 years ago, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her," Romero said. "People that look like me wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for her. She opened up those doors. Do we still need to open up those doors up here at the Capitol? Yes, because we really want to look at representative democracy and we look at the chamber — no offense to some of my colleagues — but I still think we need to brighten it up a little bit more and have different faces and different communities represented."

Adding women to history

Robison said she fell in love with state history in the fourth grade, learning about indigenous tribes, explorers who first mapped the area and Utah's role in completing the transcontinental railroad. But still, something felt missing from the curriculum.

"Nowhere in any of those stories were there any women," she recalled. "Where were they? Weren't they also here at that time? Weren't they contributing? Weren't they also changing the landscape? And I missed them."

The next year, Robison was tasked with a history fair project. Looking to fill the gap she noticed, she chose to focus on Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since then, Robison has searched for more stories of impactful women in history. But it wasn't until she began working for Better Days in 2017 that she found the stories she was looking for in Utah. It's helped her appreciate state history more than ever.

To that end, Romero said she's also sad she didn't get a chance to learn about Cannon, or other important Utah women in school. She first learned about Cannon when she got her first city hall job 20 years ago and researched why meetings were held in a room named after Cannon.

Amelia Wilkes and Lillian Wilkes, great-great-great-great granddaughters of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, the nation’s first female state senator, look over documents from when Cannon was in the senate from 1896-1900, during a press conference to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first Utah woman elected to public office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.
Amelia Wilkes and Lillian Wilkes, great-great-great-great granddaughters of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, the nation’s first female senator, look over documents from when Cannon was in the senate from 1896-1900, during a press conference to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first Utah woman elected to public office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Romero is quick to point out that women who hold office aren't the only powerful women in the state. Better Days has spent the last few years trying to highlight women who impacted Utah in many ways, creating an educational website about Utah's women's history, as well as publishing books and even trading cards on the subject.

The organization announced Wednesday that it will launch a new K-12 curriculum, to teach students about the history of trailblazing women in Utah. Officials also announced they will begin a new traveling exhibit about Cannon and women's leadership in Utah's early statehood years.

Educators and other groups wanting the Cannon tour to come to their school can sign up at www.utahwomenshistory.org. The organization hopes the exhibit can reach schools across the state.

Greene believes that learning about people in history at an early age not only helps craft role models but she says it helps children understand what authority looks like.

"When young people learn about the past and it's just one-sided or there's just one narrative told, or there's just one person they see as being the leader, both boys and girls subconsciously or consciously assume that's what a leader looks like," she said. "Broadening that lens and saying there were women running in state elections, in local elections, running cities and doing things in their own towns all across the state 125-150 years ago — I think it does open up the perspective that young people have today."

Children are now are getting the opportunity to learn about Cannon and other powerful women.

That includes Maya Mercer, a member of Girl Scout Troop 914, who helped in the process of getting the Cannon statue built.

For Maya, learning about Cannon and getting her statue built to represent Utah in the nation's capital has inspired her to be more involved in government so she can change the world around her for the better. She and her fellow Girl Scouts have attended city council meetings, pushing for a new street named after an influential woman. They've also organized projects to support refugees and immigrants in the communities where they live.

She said she is currently saving up enough money to travel to Washington, D.C., so she can attend the ceremony for the new statue at the U.S. Capitol, whenever it happens. She hopes other young girls will see that statue and be inspired by Cannon as she is.

In addition to Cannon, Maya credits the other Utah women she's learned about, such as Annie Dodge Wauneka, Alice Kasai and Barbara Toomer.

"I feel empowered to dream big and create my own meaningful and successful purposeful life," Maya said, standing next to the forward-gazing Cannon statue. "Female role models have played a large part in inspiring our Girl Scout Troop to not only believe in ourselves but also to dare to take action. We are eager to lead social change.

"Learning about women in Utah history and having living role models today helps me see what is possible in the world."