This is Women's History Month, and the Governor's Commission for Women will celebrate it March 27th at the State Capitol by paying tribute to all Utah women legislators - with a special emphasis on the first. Since Utah was a pioneer in granting women voting rights, it's entirely appropriate that Utah be in the forefront of such a celebration.
Although New Jersey allowed women to vote briefly from 1790 to 1807, the territories of Wyoming and Utah granted permanent suffrage to women in 1869 and 1870, respectively. Wyoming enacted woman suffrage, including the right to hold office, December 10, 1869.Utah gave women the right to vote two months later, February 12, 1870, but the legislation did not include the right to hold office. Utah women actually voted on two occasions before Wyoming women could vote in September 1870, 50 years ahead of the rest of the country.
In 1890, the major breakthrough came when Wyoming entered the Union with woman suffrage in its constitution. Three neighboring states soon followed - Colorado in 1893, and Utah and Idaho in 1896.
This led the way for the historic election of the first woman state senator in the United States - Martha Hughes Cannon of Utah.
Dr. Cannon, a physician, and plural wife of Angus M. Cannon, who was not yet 40 years old, defeated her husband for the seat. Actually, the Cannons were not opponents in the traditional sense. Jean B. White points out in an article in the Utah Historical Quarterly that there were 10 candidates running for the Sixth Senatorial District's five seats - five Republicans and five Democrats.
Martha Hughes Cannon ran as a Democrat and Angus M. Cannon ran as a Republican. Dr. Cannon was one of the five Democrats elected in a sweep, while her husband suffered defeat with the other Republican candidates. It seemed a dramatic way to begin a legislative career.
A native of Wales, Martha Hughes Cannon was a school teacher and a typesetter for the Deseret Evening News before enrolling in 1876 in a pre-med program at the University of Deseret. In 1878, she went East to the University of Michigan and graduated with an M.D. degree on July 1, 1880, her 23rd birthday.
Because she wanted to become a lecturer on public health, she enrolled at both the University of Pennsylvania and the National School of Elocution and Oratory. In 1882 she received a Bachelor of Science degree from the university, the only woman in a class of 75, and an oratory degree from the school of elocution - sound political preparation.
Returning to Utah, she built a private medical practice, and in 1884 became the fourth wife of Angus M. Cannon, a man 23 years her senior. She came to appreciate the practical advantages of being a plural wife - whom she regarded not as a slave but more like a single woman.
"If her husband has four wives, she has three weeks of freedom every single month."
An ardent Democrat, Mattie Cannon played a leading role in the woman suffrage movement, speaking at national suffrage meetings in Chicago and Washington, D.C. She became eloquent in her defense of the right of women to work outside the home:
"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."
With the exception of offices such as governor, which she regarded as too "mannish," she believed that women should run for political office. According to Jean White, it is unlikely that Cannon was ever considered "mannish" since her contemporaries described her as attractive, charming, and completely feminine.
Yet she had an independent but gentle spirit that manifested itself in a legislative career noted mostly for an emphasis on public health issues. Although she did not turn the political world upside down, she nevertheless made the notable first female contribution to Utah and national politics.