Religious rights, marriage rights and women's rights coalesced in Utah, creating the most
controversial suffrage struggle in the West and the nation. Women's right to vote in the
territory settled by Mormons fleeing religious persecution was inextricably linked to the
issue of polygamy--the practice of allowing plural wives in Mormon families. From the beginning,
Utah Territory was populated largely by families, not single men as were most other western
states and territories. When the Utah Territorial Legislature approved suffrage in 1870, it
enfranchised more than 17,000 women, the largest population of female voters in the world.
Emmeline B. Wells emerged as one of the country's leading spokeswomen for women's rights.
Her pro-suffrage/pro-polygamy newspaper, the Woman's Exponent, championed "The Rights of the
Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of All Nations" from 1872 to 1914. Woman should be
"recognized as a responsible being," with a right to choose her own destiny, argued Wells. She
could capably choose who should govern through her right to vote, and equally capably choose
her own marriage partner and lifestyle.
Wells' radical feminist arguments contrasted dramatically with stereotypes of Mormon women
as "drudges," "dupes" and "slaves" of tyrannical men. She often touted her own happy
circumstances, living and working for the rights of women with the indispensable aid of her
beloved husband and her five "sister wives."
Unconventional Mormon marriage practices, like that of the Wells family, drew the wrath of
zealous politicians nationwide. Ironically, anti-Mormon congressmen placed great hope in Utah's
early suffrage provision, convinced that the state's women would immediately throw off the
tyrannical yoke of male Mormon husbands and church leaders. To their surprise, Utah women
marched 6,000 strong on Temple Square in Salt Lake City to protest national anti-polygamy
legislation in 1870. Congress then repeatedly passed anti-polygamy laws to punish the burgeoning
western Mormon enclave: the Collum Act in 1870 and the Edmunds Act of 1883, culminating in the
1887 Edmunds-Tucker Bill, disfranchising all Utah women. Utah women were outraged by this bill,
calling it an affront to religious freedom, states' rights and women's rights. National suffrage
leaders openly defended Utah's pioneering women voters but carefully distanced themselves from
the "hot-button" issue of polygamy.
Mormon church and political leaders finally concurred that the polygamy controversy
threatened Utah statehood. Church President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto banning
plural marriage among Mormons in 1890. As delegates gathered to draft a new state constitution,
the Utah Woman Suffrage Association mobilized statewide to demand their right to vote. A heated
debate among the delegates ended happily for the women. The new constitution, with its suffrage
provision in tact, was ratified by more than 80 percent of the state's male electorate in 1895.
National and state leaders, including Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw, converged in Salt
Lake City to celebrate at the Rocky Mountain Suffrage Conference. Congressional approval of Utah
as the forty-fifth state soon followed in 1896.
Utah women's long tradition of public religious, political and professional service bore fruit
the same year they became full citizens. The nation's third suffrage state elected Martha Hughes
Cannon, M.D., of Salt Lake City as the nation's first female state senator, while two more women
won seats in the state's House of Representatives. Cannon, a University of Michigan Medical School
graduate, introduced "An Act to Protect the Health of Women and Girl Employees", as well as
pioneering public health laws. Proudly defending plural marriage, both as a right and as an
avenue to female liberation through public service, Cannon declared: "Somehow I know that women
who stay home all the time have the most unpleasant homes there are. You give me a woman who
thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I'll show you,
nine times out of ten, a successful mother."