By Katherine Kitterman
Seraph Young, a 23-year-old schoolteacher, made history when she cast her ballot in Salt Lake City’s municipal election on February 14, 1870. She became the first woman in the United States to vote under a women’s suffrage law.
The year 2020 marks three important anniversaries for women’s suffrage and voting rights: the 150th anniversary of Utah women’s first votes in 1870, the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended women’s suffrage across the country in 1920, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed racially discriminatory voting laws in 1965.
These anniversaries offer an opportunity to honor the Utah women who worked for voting rights, and those who carried their legacy forward by working for social justice in other ways. Their stories inspire us to become more engaged participants in our own communities today.
Many Utahns are surprised to hear about Utah’s trailblazing suffrage story, but it’s true – women’s first votes with unrestricted suffrage rights happened right here in Salt Lake City! Wyoming Territory was actually the first to pass a women’s suffrage law, but Utah Territory followed just two months later. Due to the timing of elections, Utah women were the first to go to the polls, a full 50 years before women’s suffrage became national law.
As the first to vote, Utah women drew national attention. Suffragists hoped that positive results would help spread women’s suffrage elsewhere. Anti-polygamists hoped that women in Utah would use their political power to end the Mormon practice of polygamy. When it became clear that was not going to happen, many reformers started lobbying Congress to take away Utah women’s voting rights in order to put an end to polygamy.
Mormon women mounted a grassroots campaign to protect their voting rights (and polygamy) by starting a newspaper, The Woman’s Exponent, sending petitions to Congress, and forging relationships with national suffrage leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
But other Utah women argued that their right to vote should be taken away until polygamy ended. Eventually, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887 that revoked the voting rights of all women in Utah, regardless of their religion or marital status.
Utah suffragists organized the Utah Woman Suffrage Association (UWSA) to regain the vote, with chapters in 21 Utah counties and many more towns. In the UWSA, women (and some men) met to sing, pray, discuss current political issues, and voice their support for equal rights. They worked closely with Susan B. Anthony’s national suffrage organization.
Unlike the rest of the country, Utahns generally supported women’s voting rights. When Congress invited Utah to apply for statehood, both political parties declared their support for women’s equal suffrage in the new state.
Still, at the 1895 Utah Constitutional Convention some delegates argued that including women’s suffrage in the proposed constitution might jeopardize statehood. Suffragists across the territory sent in petitions, and the pro-suffrage argument eventually won.
After the proposed constitution was overwhelmingly approved by Utah’s male voters and accepted by Congress, Utah entered the Union as the third equal suffrage state on January 4, 1896.
In that year’s election, the first where women could vote and run for office, Utahns elected three women to the state legislature and eleven to county offices. Salt Lakers even elected Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon as a state senator over her husband on the opposing ticket!
Many Utah women continued to work for a federal suffrage amendment. They attended conventions, gathered petition signatures, and staged parades and rallies. Two women from Salt Lake City, Lovern Robertson and Minnie Quay, even joined the National Woman’s Party in picketing the White House. The Nineteenth Amendment made women’s suffrage national law on August 26, 1920.
Even then, many women were not allowed to cast ballots. Discriminatory citizenship laws made Native Americans and Asian immigrants ineligible for U.S. citizenship or voting rights, and state laws often kept people of color from the ballot box. Utah women like Alberta Henry, the Salt Lake NAACP president, continued to work for equal rights and opportunities for all people.
Other Utahns carried this legacy forward in a variety of ways. Incarnación Florez was a curandera (female healer) on Salt Lake’s west side who provided spiritual comfort and physical relief to hundreds of people without accepting payment.
Edith Melendez was a fearless leader with a soft heart who fought against police brutality and advocated for better housing, economic, and educational opportunities for Utah’s Latinx community.
This next year, let’s remember these women and resolve to make a difference, too.
Illustrations by Brooke Smart. Courtesy of Better Days 2020
Better Days 2020 is a non-profit dedicated to Utah women’s history. To learn more about Utah women’s advocates and the history of Utah women’s voting rights, visit www.utahwomenshistory.org. Follow us on social media @betterdays2020 to stay in the loop for upcoming programs and events!