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Deseret News Archives
Members of the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Committee watch as the Cannon statue is brought into the Capitol rotunda.

In 1896, Martha Hughes Cannon spent a total of $35 in the campaign that led to her election as a member of Utah's fledgling state Senate.

It was a seminal moment in U.S. politics. In that election, Cannon became the first woman in America to be elected to any state senate. The fact that she defeated her husband in the election made her victory part of Utah's folklore.

As a pioneer doctor, a champion of public health, and a polygamist's wife who was also a leader in the suffragist movement, Cannon carved out a unique place in the annals of the state's history.

The Martha Hughes Cannon Health Building was dedicated in her honor in 1986. An eight-foot bronze statue of her was installed in the Utah Capitol Rotunda in 1996, 100 years after her path-breaking election. The statue was recently re-installed on the Capitol grounds following the building renovation.

Photo researcher Ron Fox has culled the newspaper and other photo archives, and many of those photos can now be seen at the newspaper's Web site, www.deseretnews.com.

Martha Maria Hughes was 2 years old when her family converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and emigrated from Wales to New York. A year later the family crossed the Plains to Salt Lake City, burying Mattie's 21-month-old sister in an unmarked grave beside the trail. Her father died days after reaching Salt Lake City in September of 1861.

Martha Hughes was working as a schoolteacher at the age of 14 and worked her way through the University of Deseret as a typesetter for the Deseret Evening News and the Women's Exponent, an LDS Relief Society magazine.

After two years of pre-med studies, she was blessed and set apart by President John Taylor of the LDS Church to study medicine and headed off to the University of Michigan, where she graduated with a medical degree on her 23rd birthday, July 1, 1880. She studied for two more years, earning a degree in pharmacy and oratory.

When she returned home, she became a resident physician for the newly founded Deseret Hospital, where she met hospital superintendent Angus M. Cannon. Angus Cannon was president of the LDS Salt Lake Stake, which at the time included all of the wards in the Salt Lake valley. He was also 23 years older than Martha Hughes, and a practicing polygamist. She became the fourth of his six plural wives in 1884.

Their marriage came two years after the federal government outlawed polygamy, and in 1886 she and her daughter, Elisabeth, traveled to Michigan and Europe for two years to avoid furnishing federal marshals with proof of her polygamous marriage.

After Cannon returned, she became an advocate for public health and women's suffrage — which is what led up to the momentous election of 1896.

Technically, Angus and Martha Cannon didn't run against one another, but were among a group of 10 candidates — five Republicans and five Democratic-Populists — running for five at-large seats in the Senate. Angus was running on the Republican ticket and Martha on the Democratic. An article in the Aug. 5, 1970, Deseret News explains the election results:

"All five Democratic candidates, benefitting from the popularity of William Jennings Bryan, who headed the ticket, were elected, including Dr. Cannon, who trailed the ticket. Although her husband ran ahead of all but one of the five Republicans, he was defeated."

The election caused a temporary rift in the marriage.

"Although (Angus Cannon) met the situation with outward humor, he did not find it easy to accept his wife's effrontery," wrote an unidentified reporter in the Sept. 28, 1968, Deseret News. "The two became reconciled, however. During Dr. Mattie's second term in the Senate, she bore her husband another a child, a daughter."

Cannon served two terms in the senate and later served on the Utah Board of Health. She eventually moved to California for her health. She died in Los Angeles in 1932, and her body was returned to Utah for burial.

e-mail: mhaddock@desnews.com