WOW Museum: The Struggle for Women's Suffrage


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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.

Utah, Conspicuous in Organized Work: Utah's Women in Church, Marriage and Politics

Mormon Temple

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 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.

Rocky Mtn. Conference 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.

Marth Hughes Cannon 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."