SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been a very good month for women in the state of Utah.
Martha Hughes Cannon is going to Washington, D.C., and a new “First to Vote” license plate has been approved to commemorate Utah women leading the way to the ballot box way back in 1870.
The fingerprints for these twin legislative triumphs can be traced to a group that calls itself Better Days 2020, a grass-roots women’s advocacy organization that, as the name might suggest, prefers praise and positivity over shrill and strident.
Getting the mostly male legislature to OK replacing the statue at the U.S. Capitol of Utahn Philo Farnsworth — the man who invented television — with one of “Mattie” Cannon, the first woman to serve as a state senator in both Utah and U.S. history, was no slam dunk. But the Better Days women prevailed with substance, common sense and a bit of style.
They knew their history. Nothing against the person who paved the way for ESPN and Netflix, but what about a woman who was a doctor, a suffragette AND defeated her husband, Angus, for that historic Senate seat? Shouldn’t she get a turn in Washington — especially since only nine of the 100 statues currently at the Capitol (each state gets two; Utah’s other statue is of Brigham Young) are of women?
And if specialty license plates can honor everything from veterans to wildlife to POWs to Real Salt Lake, why not one recognizing Utah women being the first in the country to vote?
Who in their right mind could argue with that?
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The founder and leader of Better Days 2020 is a Manhattan-raised, Yale-educated mother of three who once wrote a book about women’s advocacy that never once used the word feminism.
“That was by design,” says Neylan (pronounced Nigh-lun) McBaine, who published “Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact” in 2014, a book that examined the evolution and interaction of men and women in modern LDS culture.
Her objective, she says, was to foment progress, not revolution.
Two years later, in 2016, she had the same goal in mind when she started Better Days 2020.
It began when her friend Mandee Grant sent her an email that referenced a number of articles in the media that, after examining such factors as wage gap and women in leadership positions, proclaimed Utah the worst place for women in the United States.
McBaine, who moved with her husband, Elliot Smith, and their daughters, Esme, Auden and Dalloway, to Utah nine years ago, wondered about that. Was it really true? Is Utah 50th out of 50 when it comes to quality of life for women? Or has that become an accepted narrative that doesn’t examine the whole picture?
More importantly, what could be done to change that narrative?
McBaine’s Mormon roots are as deep as Mormon roots go, but her upbringing was hardly typically Utah Mormon. She was born in New York City to her opera singer mother, Ariel Bybee, whose LDS pioneer ancestors crossed the plains to Utah, and nonmember lawyer father, the late John Neylan McBaine.
Until she was off to Yale for college, she resided in midtown Manhattan across from the Lincoln Center, where her world-renowned mother performed 18 straight years for the Metropolitan Opera. McBaine studied piano at Juilliard and attended the all-girls Chapin School on the Upper East Side, Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ alma mater. Ivanka Trump was a couple of grades behind her.
She met her husband at Yale. They were married two weeks after graduation and lived in San Francisco, Boston (where her husband attended Harvard Business School) and Brooklyn before deciding in 2009 to relocate to Utah to be around both of their extended families.
Raised by a strong woman and surrounded all her life by more strong women, McBaine brought with her a unique perspective about the place and role of women.
“This idea that a Mormon woman had to do one thing and be just one way was completely foreign to me,” she says.
Not only that, if everything she’d studied was true, it was also completely foreign to women like Martha Hughes Cannon and many others who once put Utah at the top of the women’s rights map by leading the suffrage movement in the 19th century.
It was Utah women who successfully lobbied the state Legislature to grant women the right to vote in 1870, second only to Wyoming (but because Utah held subsequent elections first, Utah women were the first in America to vote).
It was Utah women, including Mattie Cannon and Emmeline Wells, who lobbied long and hard for ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that came in 1920, granting all American women the right to vote.
Why not accentuate that?
“We have this amazing 19th-century legacy that was followed by kind of a pendulum swing in the 20th century,” says McBaine, referring to a time when “women’s advocacy became highly politicized in ways that were not attractive to the LDS Church, specifically, and so the church backed away and withdrew from reformist conversations.
“And we feel like the time is now right to help that pendulum swing back in the 21st century.”7 comments on this story
She has found legions of like-minded women, non-LDS and LDS, who are rallying with her. They chose the name Better Days 2020 because “Better Days” was the theme adopted by the Mormon Relief Society when it began in 1842 and the year 2020 is when the statue of Martha Hughes Cannon is scheduled to make its way to Washington, D.C., joining 19th Amendment centennial festivities and marking exactly 150 years since Utah women were “First to Vote.”
“We feel like today we’re in the better days that our ancestors imagined and worked for,” says McBaine. “And that there are also better days to come for our children.”