This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, granting many women throughout the country the right to vote. Utahns are celebrating an even bigger milestone.
Under the 19th Amendment, white women across the United States gained the right to vote in 1920. But Katherine Kitterman, an historian with the nonprofit Better Days 2020, says Utah women cast their first ballots 50 years before, in 1870.
“While work still remained for women of color and others seeking access to the ballot, we feel that it's an important piece of the story to bring back into the national narrative this year, and to remind Utahns that we had this pathbreaking history," Kitterman said. "That there's a legacy of women's leadership that extends far back and far forward, and that women here paved the way for the suffrage movement, that they really influenced how that played out.”
Kitterman says many factors played into Utah women’s early access to the ballot, but it was largely spurred by congressional anti-polygamy legislation. Nationally, suffragists thought if women could vote, they would end polygamy. But Kitterman says women in the Utah territory didn’t vote the way reformers hoped.
“So, as those discussions were happening, male lawmakers here in Utah actually passed the law, and women were involved as well in that pushing for their own right to vote, in a couple of different ways," Kitterman said. "So, it was a confluence of lots of factors. Local political dynamics were shifting, and as women gained this toehold in political involvement, they really fought a lot of prejudice and a lot of anti-suffrage rhetoric after they started voting.”
A Utah woman, Seraph Young, cast her vote for a local election on Feb. 14, 1870, the first woman in the nation to do so. But only 17 years later, in 1887, Utah women lost that right when Congress passed the anti-polygamy Edmunds Tucker Act, restricting the LDS Church and revoking Utah women’s suffrage rights. Historian Tiffany Greene says that’s when local women started to organize across the state.
“In Summit County and in Wasatch County, women led and created these suffrage associations," Greene said. "They met once a month, and they lobbied their local leaders, because they weren't in the legislature, but they lobbied those who were to try and get that vote reinstated.”
Utah women regained the right to vote in 1896, when Utah gained statehood. Kitterman says that led women to participate in politics in other ways, citing one Park City woman as an example.
“Elizabeth Cohen was one of those women who attended the National Democratic Convention as a delegate in 1900," Kitterman said. "Many people reported at the time that she was the first woman to be a delegate at a National Convention.”
This year, the state is sending a statue of former Utah State Senator Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon to Washington D.C. After defeating her husband on the ballot in 1896, Cannon became the first woman in the nation to be elected to a state senate. Since then, women in Utah have struggled to be involved at the state level, representing only 25% of current legislative seats. But Greene says women participated a lot in local politics in the first quarter of the century, including another Wasatch Back woman.
“Lavina Murdock, who was from Heber, she was the county treasurer for five consecutive terms, between 1904 and 1914," Greene said. "So, there were lots of women who were involved in their local government, even if it wasn't on the state legislature level.”
This month, Utah is celebrating those first votes by Utah women. Better Days 2020 is hosting events at the state capitol Feb.10 through 14, culminating in Utah Women’s Voter Registration Day on Friday. For more information about women’s suffrage in Utah, visit betterdays2020.com.
Song: "The Yellow Ribbon," sung by Elizabeth Knight.