Women in Utah are among the women who can be remembered for their contributions during Women’s History Month, especially as it pertained to suffrage.

Utah became a U.S. territory in Sept. 1850 and shortly after, women began fighting for the right to vote. Latter-day Saint women in particular pooled their resources to fight for women’s equality in Utah. Here’s their history.

How did Utah women get the right to vote (the first time)?

Conversations around women’s suffrage generally involved discussions about plural marriage. In 1856, the Republican Party declared its commitment to ending the “twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.” Some believed that granting women’s suffrage would lead to the end of polygamy.

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An opinion piece published in The New York Times on March 5, 1869, surmised that giving women the right to vote could have other consequences. “Perhaps it would result in casting out polygamy and Mormonism in general. … Here would be a capital field for women suffrage to make a start, and we presume nobody would object to the experiment.”

The Deseret News stated on March 24, 1869, “Utah is giving examples to the world on many points, and if the wish is to try the experiment of giving females the right to vote in the Republic, we know of no place where the experiment can be so safely tried as in this Territory.”

Some suffragists supported this move, not just because they thought it could end plural marriage, but because they hoped that if Utah women had the right to vote, the rest of the nation would follow, according to utahwomenshistory.org, a history site that is run by the nonprofit organization Better Days. On Feb. 12, 1870, some Utah women got the right to vote. Many Utah women who were Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Asian American would not receive the right to vote until later — well past the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

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Who was the first woman to vote in Utah?

Seraph Young, a schoolteacher and granddaughter of Brigham Young, was “the first woman in the United States under a woman’s equal suffrage law when she cast her ballot in the Salt Lake City municipal election on Feb. 14, 1870,” according to utahwomenshistory.org. Utah women even began advocating for women’s rights alongside leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But then, the Edmunds-Tucker Act changed everything.

Picture of Seraph Young published in the Deseret Evening News on March 8, 1902. Young was the granddaughter of Brigham Young and the first woman to vote in Utah. | Deseret Evening News, Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, the Edmunds-Tucker Act required anti-polygamy oaths from any prospective voter or office candidate. This congressional act disenfranchised Utah women. Furthermore, Utah women were divided on the suffrage issue. Some non-Latter-day Saint suffragists supported universal suffrage, but believed granting the vote to Utah women would give The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more political power, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia.

How did Utah women win back the vote?

Utah women had the vote for 17 years before it was taken away, and they quickly mobilized to win the vote back.

How did Utah women begin their suffrage efforts again?

In 1888, Emily S. Richards proposed forming a Utah suffrage association, which would be affiliated with the National Woman Suffrage Association. On Jan. 10, 1889, this association was formed with Margaret N. Caine as president and Emily Richards as state organizer. The association only put women who were not in plural marriages as leaders due to the ongoing political tensions. The association was comprised mostly of Latter-day Saint women who were actively involved in the Relief Society.

Front row: Jane S. Richards, left, Emmeline Wells. Middle row: Phoebe Woodruff, Isabelle Horne, Eliza R. Snow, Zina Young, Marinda Hyde. Back row: Dr. Ellis R. Shipp, Bathsheba W. Smith, Elizabeth Howard, Dr. Romania Pratt Penrose.
Front row: Jane S. Richards, left, Emmeline Wells. Middle row: Phoebe Woodruff, Isabelle Horne, Eliza R. Snow, Zina Young, Marinda Hyde. Back row: Dr. Ellis R. Shipp, Bathsheba W. Smith, Elizabeth Howard, Dr. Romania Pratt Penrose. | Utah State Historical Society

The Woman’s Exponent, a magazine published by Latter-day Saint women, would become pivotal in advocating for women’s rights. Emmeline B. Wells became editor in 1875, and when Utah women were disenfranchised, she changed the subtitle of the newspaper to “The Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of all Nations.”

Emmeline B. Wells sits at a table with a notebook next to her as she writes a letter. | Ron Fox collection

Latter-day Saint women continued to fight for the vote but faced opposition until 1890. In 1890, church President Wilford Woodruff ended the practice of plural marriage for church members. This led Congress to invite Utah to apply again for statehood.

Utah votes to enshrine women’s suffrage in the state constitution

In 1895, Utah was holding a constitutional convention as it was preparing to propose statehood to the U.S. Congress. Emmeline B. Wells wrote Susan B. Anthony in 1894 leading up to the convention, asking for advice. Wells then published a declaration of Anthony’s in the Woman’s Exponent, which read, “And I am sure that you, my dear sisters, who have not only tasted the sweets of liberty, but also the bitterness, the humiliation of the loss of the blessed symbol, will not allow the organic law of your state to be framed on the barbarism that makes women the political slaves of men.”

Later at the convention itself, Orson F. Whitney, poet and future apostle, voiced his support for women’s suffrage and said, “It is a woman’s destiny to have a voice in the affairs of government. She was designed for it. She has a right to it.”

Utah voted in favor of enshrining political equality of women into its constitution.

Legacy of Emmeline B. Wells

Emmeline B. Wells’ legacy was well noticed by the nation. Margherita A. Hamm wrote in a national women’s magazine, “From far-off Salt Lake City comes Mrs. Emeline B. Wells, a smiling, demure, and well-bred woman. ... She is a royal enthusiast who has devoted her life to woman’s enfranchisement.”

Wells credits the Relief Society with the battle for political independence for women. A couple days before the Relief Society Jubilee, celebrating 50 years since the founding of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, Wells reflected on when Joseph Smith established the Society and wrote in her diary, “Since which time women have been developing powers and attributes which had previously lain dormant and also claiming independence and freedom in civil political and religious matters unheard of before.”

Photograph of Emmeline B. Wells, the fifth president of the Relief Society. | Deseret News archives

Emmeline B. Wells’ friendship with Susan B. Anthony

When Susan B. Anthony passed away, she slipped off her gold ring and instructed those around her to send it to Wells. Along with the ring came a note that read, “In recognition of her esteem and love for Mrs. Emmeline B. Wells, Miss Anthony sent one of her gold rings on the day of her death to Mrs. Wells in Utah. The bond between these two women was very strong and the friendship had continued for nearly thirty years.”

When Wells was 91 years old, she witnessed the governor of Utah announce Utah’s ratification of the 19th Amendment on Oct. 3, 1919.