The journey to reclaiming women’s history isn’t over yet, but progress is underway.
March is Women’s History Month. Traditionally, women’s stories have been left out of the narrative, and women haven’t typically been seen as being worthy of making history. History without the voices and perspectives of women is best compared to a tapestry with half the threads pulled out: You can still get an idea of the image, but much of the story and nuance is gone.
Utah hasn’t traditionally been a place to look for examples of women’s history or notable steps toward women’s rights. The focus on uncovering women’s history has shown, however, that Utah has always been a frontrunner for female progress. It’s become apparent that the state has always been full of smart, innovative women who contributed to several landmark events in the state and the nation.
Women were heavily involved and vital to settling Utah right from its beginning. They worked hard right alongside the men to cultivate land, build homes and turn the area into a home. When their family or husbands got sick, women took care of it. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, women ran the home and provided for their families when their husbands were called away on church missions.
Utah became the second territory or state to allow women to vote, second only to Wyoming. After those rights were taken away 17 years later, they wanted them back. Women’s suffrage took root in Utah culture, with many of the church's Relief Society leaders also acting as leading suffragettes. As surprising as it might seem to those who associate Utah women with housework, Utah became a hotspot and leader for women’s suffrage.
National suffrage leaders, like Susan B. Anthony, visited Utah to speak to women here. Likewise, Utah suffragettes traveled east, even to the United Kingdom, to speak about women’s rights. Influential names like Emmeline B. Wells, Seraph Young Ford, Sarah M. Kimball, Martha Hughes Cannon and Mary Isabella Horne are once again becoming just as well-known as they were during the time they lived.
History hasn’t been especially kind to Utah women. Most of their stories are absent from state history books and school curriculum. Scholarly efforts to reclaim their stories and integral place throughout the state’s history are bringing them back, though. Resurrecting these stories have revealed a few things about Utah women and give clues about what other historical insights could be waiting to be rediscovered around the globe.
Thanks to a great tradition of record keeping and the preservation of the entire run of the Woman’s Exponent, a Utah newspaper for women that regularly advertised for suffragette meetings and ran pieces about women’s rights, a window has opened to show historical contributions that have been overlooked for too long. It’s shown that everyday women were actively involved in politics and making changes, with preserved journals and letters shedding light on how those beliefs affected home life.
The work to reclaim Utah women’s history is an excellent example of how preconceived notions or stigmas can change when women’s voices are included. Women’s History Month is a reminder that there is still much more work to be done. Utah is just one place, and the suffrage movement is just one small moment in history. What could we learn about every era and every place if we listened to those women’s voices?2 comments on this story
The oft quoted Laurel Thatcher Ulrich line, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” is sometimes interpreted to mean that a woman has to stand out and do extraordinary things in order to be remembered. In reality, the quote is taken out of context. The point was that women shouldn’t have to fight to make history; that everyday women and their lives are worth remembering. We know a lot about the everyday lives of men from all walks of life, but the women who were there next to them are often disregarded, often resulting in a skewed, less nuanced and half-formed version of events.
Utah women’s history is emerging as proof that powerful, involved women don’t need to be found or created — they’ve always been there. We just need to remember them.