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In April of 1895, the Territory of Utah was all abuzz about woman’s suffrage: would the new constitution of the proposed State of Utah grant women the right to vote? To some – specifically Constitutional Convention delegate Brigham H. Roberts – including women’s suffrage in the constitution would jeopardize its acceptance by Washington D.C., something Utah couldn’t afford to do since it had already applied for statehood six times. But to others, such as convention delegate Franklin S. Richards, the State of Utah would not leave its women behind at any cost. In fact, Richards understood that enfranchising women – not just giving them the vote but empowering them in every pursuit and office – was at the very core of Utah culture and values. At the constitutional convention, Richards stated, “Equal suffrage will prove the brightest and purest ray of Utah’s glorious star; it will…beckon our sister states and territories upward and onward to the higher plane of civilization, and the fuller measure of civil and religious liberty.”

In his statement, Richards was looking both to the future and to the past. When the constitutional convention met in 1895, enfranchising women wasn’t just a political theory to be tried out with new statehood. Utah had been, in fact, the first place in the modern nation where a woman had cast a legal ballot. Twenty five years earlier, in 1870, Seraph Young (Brigham Young’s niece) had cast the first female vote in the Council Hall building in Salt Lake City, signaling the beginning of Utah’s pioneering efforts on behalf of women.

The LDS Church’s influence and involvement in the history of women’s suffrage in Utah is inescapable, and it is that influence that I wish to explore in this paper. This exploration serves as only a brief dip into a tumultuous and fascinating time in history, but one which has been largely unexplored for a variety of reasons. The non-profit that I founded with Mandee Grant, Better Days 2020, is dedicated to resurrecting and popularizing Utah women’s history in creative and communal ways through education, legislation and art. Our mission coincides with the two anniversaries we will be celebrating in the year 2020: the 150th anniversary of that first female vote in Utah (1870) and the centennial of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote throughout the country (1920).

The idea to have Utah women vote originated in 1869, well after the pioneers had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and after the origination of the Women’s Rights Movement in Seneca Falls in 1848. But the idea was still novel and untried, and considered radical especially by the eastern establishment. And yet, as with several states in the West that debuted women’s suffrage in the 19th century, Utah’s ground was fertile (and already plowed) for social experiments. Indeed, Utah was already home at that time to one of the most radical social experiments of the day: polygamy.

Polygamy was the original impetus for suggesting the women of Utah be enfranchised. Word was reaching Washington D.C. that this relic of “barbarism” was in play in the Territory, which was already petitioning to become a state, and legislation was considered to limit and punish polygamy in Utah. Enfranchising the women of Utah was proposed as another means to limiting the practice: if the women of Utah – whom the East saw as inherently oppressed and demeaned – could vote, would they not vote out the social order that held them prisoner?

The Utah legislature, seeing through the Eastern strategy, voted unanimously to let their women vote a month after Wyoming’s legislature too agreed to women’s suffrage. Utah, however, had the first election in which women actually cast ballots. And, not surprising to the men of Utah, women did not vote out the men who upheld the polygamous practices. Quite the contrary.

The theocratic nature of Utah’s governing body at the time made it impossible to separate the ideals and practices of Mormonism from the establishment of the new territory, and the issue of women’s suffrage is just one place this tension played out. But what is most interesting to a modern audience today is that male and female leaders of that time pointed to LDS church doctrines and values to support the advancement of women, not fight against it. The almost all-Mormon Utah territorial legislature of 1870, for instance, pointed to the fact that all members of the Church – including women - had voted “by common consent” since the Church’s founding. The women of early Utah that Better Days 2020 seeks to highlight and celebrate didn’t become what they were and do what they did in spite of their community, and in spite of LDS doctrine. They accomplished what they did because of them.

For example, consider the words of Joseph F. Smith, who served in the Utah House of Representatives and had other government postings, but of course also became the 6th president of the Church. At the evening session of the General Relief Society Conference on April 4, 1895, Smith took on the issue of the wage gap between men and women:

“Shall a man be paid higher wages than is paid to a woman for doing no better than she does the very same work? Shall the avenues for employment be multiplied to men and diminished to women by the mere dictum of selfishness of men...
By what process of reasoning can it be shown that a woman standing at the head of a family with all the responsibility resting upon her to provide for them, should be deprived of the avenues and ways or means that a man in like circumstances may enjoy to provide for them?
Yet many of these unwholesome conditions do exist and that too vastly to the detriment of women...strange to say, women may be found who seem to glory in their enthralled condition and caress and fondle the very chains and manacles which fester and enslave them!
Let those who love their helpless, dependent condition and prefer to remain in it, enjoy it; but for conscience and for mercy’s sake, let them not stand in the way of…their sisters who would be, and by right ought to be free.
Let them who will not enter into the door of equal rights and impartial suffrage step aside, and leave the passage clear for those who desire to enter…Many women are afraid of woman’s suffrage because monopolizing men have tried to frighten them from seeking their right. Let no woman be deterred for a moment from her whole duty by such contemptible twaddle.”

In this speech, Smith conflates political and social ideals with a religious setting – i.e. the Relief Society conference – implying that alignment with the doctrine of the Church should lead naturally to alignment with these progressive ideals he describes. The astonishing lack of patriarchal language in this statement suggests ecclesiastical and political leaders like Smith were prioritizing the Gospel’s revolutionary restoration of individual worth and divine nature of both sexes, rather than to the hierarchical priesthood or familial structures which shaped the rhetoric around gender in the 20th century. Mormon political leaders of the time also used more explicitly religious language to describe the emancipation of women from old strictures. Bishop Orson F. Whitney stated in 1895, “It is woman’s destiny to have a voice in the affairs of government. She was designed for it. She has a right to it. This great social upheaval, this woman’s movement that is making itself heard and felt, means something more than that certain women are ambitious to vote and hold office. I regard it as one of the great levelers by which the Almighty is lifting up this fallen world, lifting it nearer to the throne of its creator.” The easy transition between political and religious language demonstrates a lack of hesitancy in conflating the two paradigms, and seeing the political movement as a fulfillment of the religious.

As for the women, one need look no farther than the Woman’s Exponent to recognize the way in which religious convictions were fueling the political sentiments of the time. As one of the longest running suffrage newspapers in the country, the Woman’s Exponent was also the official organ of the Relief Society. In it, women such as Emmeline B. Wells, Louisa Greene Richards, Lucinda Lee Dalton and many others explored how their identities as women of God intersected with their identities as contributors to their broader worlds. In one of her many commentaries in the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline B. Wells demonstrates how the women too were folding their spiritual lives into the discussion of women: “Let [woman] have the same opportunities for an education, observation and experience in public and private for succession of years, and then see if she is not equally endowed with man and prepared to bear her part on all general questions socially, politically, industrially and educationally as well as spiritually.” The addition of “as well as spiritually” at the end suggested spiritual work is a given for women; it is the other “general questions” which Emmeline suggests women can also take on.

Better Days 2020 is a state-wide organization that seeks to represent the stories of all Utah women, not just Mormon women. But as a member of the Church myself, I cannot help but recognize the irony and strangeness that comes from placing these statements and attitudes next to the prevailing feelings among Mormon women of the 20th and early 21st centuries that I have spent over ten years studying as the founder of the Mormon Women Project and author of Women at Church. Most Mormons – men and women – that my team approach with this history are shocked and surprised and inevitably ask, “What happened?” The question is justified: Just last week the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a new study places Utah at the very bottom of the 50 states for having the largest wage gap between men and women. Considering Joseph F. Smith’s opinions on paying men and women the same amount for the same job, there is not just a political or social sense of injustice revealed by this factoid about Utah, but it also indicates a deep spiritual confusion must be at work as well. If LDS doctrine were understood aright, Utah would have the lowest wage gap in the nation, not the largest.

I believe – along with my team at Better Days 2020 – that for Mormons, the sentiments and actions expressed in Utah women’s history give us the precedent we can look to when seeking the spiritual and social permission to be advocates for women once again. Women’s advocacy was a pillar of this state’s founding, both as a political good and as a fulfillment of religious restoration. We can do a better job – as Utahns and as Mormons anywhere – of honoring that legacy.

As a first step, let us remember it. We invite you to visit the Better Days 2020 website, and discover many different ways of commemorating Utah’s pioneering steps in behalf of women. Visit our educational curriculum site at www.utahwomenshistory.com, which is providing lessons for 4th and 7th graders in Utah schools (password bd2020). Share this story with the rising generation. Teach this story in your mutual activities and Family Home Evenings; let its power work on us to change our perception of ourselves and our people. Let us never forget what was once both plain and precious to our foremothers and forefathers.

Full Citation for this Article: McBaine, Neylan (2018) "Women’s Suffrage in Utah: The Almighty’s Great Leveler," SquareTwo, Vol. 11 No. 1 (Spring 2018), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleMcBaineSuffrage.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 1 Comment

I. Dr. Susan Madsen

I appreciated Neylan McBaine’s fabulous article in the recent issue of Square Two on women’s suffrage in Utah. I am currently working with Neylan on her Better Days 2020 advisory board, and I am convinced in the importance of this work in helping Utahns, and particularly LDS members, remember the rich and noble state history in supporting women in a variety of ways. I had not heard the quotes from Joseph F. Smith and Franklin S. Richards, and they remind me of the Church’s great support for women by the Brethren in days past. “Remembering” has been such an important theme in the past few years in conference, Ensign articles, and other writings, and I believe remembering this history of strong LDS women in terms of the ways they used their voices and influenced inside and outside the home is critically important to efforts today. As Sheri Dew stated in general conference in 2001: ““No marriage or family, no ward or stake is likely to reach its full potential until husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, men and women work together in unity of purpose, respecting and relying upon each other’s strengths.” Both women and men should find their voices and use them, and efforts like Better Days 2020 are important to help us remember this.