Gov. Gary Herbert recently signed a bill to induct a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon into the national collection of statues at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The decision to honor an individual of such remarkable achievement has the added benefit of correcting the persistent underrepresentation of women in American historical annals.
One hundred statues comprise The Statuary Hall Collection housed in the nation’s capital, giving each state the opportunity to memorialize two citizens from their history for millions of visitors to see each year.
Only nine of the statues in the collection are of women; Cannon’s statue will be the 10th, joining the ranks of Helen Keller, Sacagawea and Frances Willard. Her statue will replace Philo T. Farnsworth's — the famous Utahn and inventor of television. This decision does not diminish his important contributions to the state and the world.
Cannon is going to Washington because she was remarkable. By elevating the contributions of Cannon to this position, Herbert and the Legislature not only celebrate her work as an early suffragist, state senator and physician, but put her in a position to inspire all visiting Statuary Hall that they too are capable of great things.
Cannon particularly deserves to be celebrated for her thoughtful, pioneering life, one that transcended existing norms and carved out space for women where none had existed previously. She was a mother and a polygamous wife, navigating the tumultuous period in which she lived with religious devotion. She championed education, medicine and government and used her platforms to encourage other women to follow suit. She received four degrees by the age of 25 and then was the resident physician at Deseret Hospital, where she hosted classes on obstetrics to make childbirth safer for women.
She also expressed deep humanity — that is to say, she was nuanced and complex, her personal writings rife with contradictions. She lived in an era where few women were striving for educational or career opportunities, yet she proved women could pursue and accomplish the extraordinary. She ran for a state Senate seat against her husband, winning the election in 1896. With this platform she established welfare provisions for disabled Utahns and for workplace protections and benefits for female employees. She also used her platform to advocate for suffrage on a national stage, speaking at Seneca Falls and working closely with activists like Susan B. Anthony.13 comments on this story
Memorializing a woman of such achievement in a national venue requires no second thought; however, moving Cannon’s statue from the Utah Capitol to the national Capitol offers the bonus of increasing the visual representation of women in halls of remembrance. This act has proved to have significant psychological effects on women, enabling them to see themselves as capable of excellence. Research at Harvard University reveals that the underrepresentation of women in mass media today results in a “subtle gender bias that persists in organizations and in society (that) disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.”
In other words, when young girls do not see themselves represented in positions of prominence, they subconsciously internalize a belief that they cannot become leaders. Cannon’s representation in the Capitol is important for women, for Utah and for the citizens of the nation who will now consider her life and accomplishments when visiting Capitol Hill. Her presence on a national stage should inspire all who see her.