WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


California | Colorado | Hawaii
Kansas | New Mexico | Oregon
Texas | Utah | Washington | Wyoming


1870-   Utah Territorial Legislature approves full suffrage, enfranchising 17,179 female voters.

1873-   Congress passes Edmunds Act, disenfranchising U.S. citizens in plural marriages.

1887-   Congress passes Edmunds-Tucker Act, disenfranchising all Utah women.

1889-   1889 Utah Woman Suffrage Association formed.

1890-   1890 Mormon Church issues manifesto, officially abandoning polygamous marriage.

1891-   1891 Rocky Mountain Suffrage Conference held in Salt Lake City. Male voters approve full women's suffrage by large majority.

1896-   1896 Utah statehood approved by Congress. Utah becomes third suffrage state in the United States.

Emmeline B. Wells

Emmeline Blanch Wells (1828-1921), Utah suffragist and journalist, poses front and center with five sister wives.
Utah State Historical Society

Back to Biographies

Back to Suffrage in Utah

The early years for Emmeline Blanche were filled with challenges. She was born in 1828 in Massachusetts, where her father died when she was four years old. Emmeline's mother joined the Mormon Church into which the young girl was baptized. Circumstances forced her to grow up quickly. By age fifteen, she was teaching school and married the son of a prominent Mormon family, James Harvey Harris. In 1844, the Mormon Church's following was expanding rapidly. The Harrises moved to church headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois. Suddenly James abandoned Emmeline and her new baby son, leaving her to fend for herself in an unfamiliar environment.

Again Emmeline faced tragedy. She became the second plural wife of a Mormon bishop, Newel K. Whitney, who died suddenly in 1850. She had by now joined the growing stream of Mormon settlers headed for Utah, the permanent new home for the Church. Emmeline taught school in Salt Lake City, where she now was mother to her son and two daughters. Her family grew again when she married Daniel H. Wells, with whom she had three more daughters.

The Wells family provided Emmeline with stability for the first time in her life. She and Daniel were prominent religious and political leaders in Mormon territory. In 1870, the Utah Territorial Legislature enacted full voting rights for women, just one year after Wyoming Territory passed the first such law in the nation.

By age forty-nine, with her children raised, Emmeline was ready to launch her career as a journalist. In 1877, she became editor of a leading western women's rights newspaper, the Woman's Exponent, a post she retained for another thirty-seven years. The newspaper offered articles on a variety of topics, including a woman's right to vote, women's professional sphere beyond the household, and its controversial defense of plural marriage (polygamy). When Congress revoked Utah women's right to vote in the Edmunds-Tucker Bill of 1887, thousands of Women's Exponent readers protested. Although many national suffrage leaders thought polygamy was demeaning to women, they also decried Utah women's disfranchisement at the hands of Congress.

Wells was an early women's historian as well as a journalist. The Woman's Exponent provided detailed documentation of women's political activities in Utah and around the West. She believed the paper should "furnish good material for future historians...not only concerning woman's work, industrial and educational, but the lives of the women." The paper also advocated social reform, relief efforts for the poor, and new laws to protect the health of women and children.

Wells published the Woman's Exponent until 1914, when at age eighty-four she turned the paper over to the Mormon Relief Society. She lived to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment, then died quietly at age ninety-three in 1921. She had devoted more than fifty years of her life building the women's suffrage movement in the West.