TV review: KUED documentary a beautiful tribute to legendary Utah pioneer woman Martha Hughes Cannon

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, July 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Wife, mother, medical doctor, state senator and national advocate for women’s rights — a Hillary Clintonesque, contemporary woman? No, Utah pioneer Martha Hughes Cannon, who walked behind a covered wagon to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley in 1861.

Continuing its tradition as “Utah’s best storyteller,” KUED will air “Martha Hughes Cannon,” on Sunday, July 22, at 8 p.m., in connection with the state’s Pioneer Day celebrations.

The highly researched original documentary, produced by the University of Utah-affiliated public TV station’s Nancy Green from her script written with senior producer Ken Verdoia, is a truly beautiful and deeply inspiring tribute to a Utah legend and remarkable woman on a national level. It adds new dimensions to pioneer struggles and the conflicts caused by national persecution of polygamist women.

Mark your calendar because, for Utah history buffs and students of the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this is must-see programming. As an indication of its importance, after the first broadcast, the documentary in its entirety will stream on kued.org/programming and the transcript will also be available.

Using many historical photos, quoted letters and interviews — with historians, a teary eyed biographer and descendants, including a granddaughter with revealing personal insight — the life story of this fascinating woman is related. The tragedy is that at her request all diary pages were burned at her death, in 1932.

As “Martha Hughes Cannon” indicates, the state’s first governor and second LDS Church president Brigham Young taught women “to dream big and was encouraging that they become all they could be.” At age 14, “Mattie,” as she was generally called, worked as typesetter for the Deseret News and the Relief Society’s Women’s Exponent and schoolteacher.

Cannon completed a chemistry degree at the University of Deseret, now the University of Utah, and was then called to study medicine at the University of Michigan in 1878. With an interest in public speaking, she also received a diploma from the National School of Elocution and Oratory, and colleagues lamented her decision not to become a dramatic stage actress.

Romantically, she “broke hearts left and right” before marrying early church leader Angus Munn Cannon, who was superintendent of the newly founded Deseret Hospital where she was resident physician. The two “fell head over heels in love with each other.”

Targeted as a polygamous wife to a prominent Utahn, she chose exile in England over going into hiding in the state. “I would rather be a stranger in a strange land and be able to hold my head up among my fellow beings than to be a sneaking captive at home,” she reflected.

After the warrant for her arrest had expired, Cannon returned to Utah and worked for a woman’s right to vote, which propelled her into politics. In a situation highly unlikely to be repeated, she was drafted to run against her husband for a state senate seat. While Angus Cannon, as mayor of St. George, was more politically experienced (match that, Hillary), she won the election to become the country’s first woman state senator, 24 years before American women’s right to vote was universally granted.

Produced for a national audience, the documentary — during this “Mormon Moment” — can serve as a brief Cliff Notes introduction to Mormons and the LDS Church’s assertion of women’s multifaceted role in society and wholehearted devotion to family life.

The only criticism of this insightful program is that Cannon is not always clearly highlighted in some photography, which includes large group shots amid the family photos and stock photos used from the period. And a final quibble: interviewees from Brigham Young University are only identified for their university affiliation and not by titles or areas of study.

After viewing “Martha Hughes Cannon,” you’ll have a better view of this woman of faith with many state and national achievements to her credit. Then, along with viewing the This Is the Place monument at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, make a point to honor Cannon at her 8-foot-high bronze statue on state Capitol grounds.

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