Martha Hughes Cannon is taking the long way to get to Washington. And that’s just fine with Deidre Henderson, Utah’s newly elected lieutenant governor.
The plan was to have the statue of Cannon — who became the first woman state senator in U.S. history when she was elected to the inaugural Utah Legislature way back in 1896 — take its place in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol last summer. It was to be part of the centennial festivities commemorating the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
But then came 2020.
Like everyone and everything else, the 550-pound statue made out of Utah copper has been in a holding pattern ever since. Its temporary place of residence is in the Utah Capitol, where it resides on the third level, not far down the hall from Henderson’s office.
Every chance she gets, the lieutenant governor likes to show Martha off. Over the past three years the two women, although centuries apart, have become quite close.
Henderson didn’t know that much about Martha Hughes Cannon back in 2018 when she was serving in the Utah Senate and learned that her colleague Todd Weiler was sponsoring legislation to replace the statue in the U.S. Capitol of television inventor Philo Farnsworth, a native of Beaver, with one of Cannon.
Each state gets two statues in Statuary Hall. Utah’s other statue is of Brigham Young.
As it happened, Henderson at the time had only recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where she and her husband had taken a tour of the Library of Congress.
In the library’s main reading room, she was surrounded by beautiful ornate statues of both men and women.
It was only when she looked closer that she noted that the statues of men were of prominent historical figures such as Michelangelo, Sir Isaac Newton, Moses, Shakespeare, Plato and Beethoven.
Whereas the statues of women were only allegorical, depicting such things as art, history, freedom, commerce, poetry, science and law.
“The men were real men,” she said. “None of the women statues were actual women.”
As she continued her Washington visit, “I started looking for representations of real women and there weren’t very many of them.”
Of the 100 statues in Statuary Hall, the score was 91 men, nine women.
It was in this frame of mind that Henderson learned of Weiler’s legislation to make it 90-10.
He could count on her vote, that was for sure. It was like asking if she approved of breathing.
Of course nothing’s ever easy in politics, so when Henderson learned that it was a very real possibility that Weiler’s bill might not pass — Philo Farnsworth had plenty of supporters — she jumped to the Martha Hughes Cannon cause.
On the day of the vote, she showed up early with a yellow rose boutonniere for every member of the Senate, the majority of them men.
Then she told the story of the war of the roses in Tennessee — when symbolic yellow roses paved the way for Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment, ensuring that women’s suffrage became federal law.
After that she told them details about her recent tour of the Library of Congress.
In the face of such rhetoric, logic and passion, opposition withered. The bill passed. Farnsworth was out. Cannon was in.
For Henderson, a lot has happened since then. Just as she was completing her second term in the state Senate this past fall she joined Spencer Cox to form the winning ticket in the 2020 gubernatorial race, landing her in the statehouse on a daily basis.
Having Martha’s statue close by her Capitol office gives her not only the chance to educate visitors about Cannon’s many accomplishments — besides being a politician and a suffragette, she was a physician and visionary who founded the Utah Department of Health — but it also gives her the opportunity to inspire people, particularly young girls, to believe in their dreams.
“It’s very important to tell these stories of real women,” she said. “Like the adage goes, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ When you can’t see real women anywhere in iconography in the United States, that’s a problem.”
When will Henderson finally have to bid adieu to Martha?
“There’s still a few hoops we need to jump through,” she said, steps that include final approval from the architect of the Capitol and a U.S. Senate resolution from Mitt Romney, not to mention getting sufficiently clear of the pandemic. “But we’re hoping by this fall she’s in Washington.”
Until then, she’s hers, and ours.