1896 One Hundred Years Ago

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On January 11, 1897, in Salt Lake City, Martha Hughes Cannon took her seat in the Utah legislature, becoming America’s first female state senator. (The first female members of a state’s lower house were elected in Colorado in 1894.) Cannon, a Democrat, had been elected in November as one of five senators from Salt Lake County. Among the losing candidates was her Republican husband, Angus, who demonstrated his commitment to family values by having four wives. The arrangement appealed to Martha, who cherished having “three weeks of freedom every month.” She made the best of her free time by practicing medicine, having earned degrees from the universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania. (Federal authorities, less pleased than Martha with plural marriage, had jailed Angus for six months a decade earlier.)

Utah women had won the right to vote in 1870, during territorial days. Mormons passed the measure to solidify their political control; in combination with plural marriages, female suffrage swelled their share of the electorate. Congress reversed the move in 1887, but when Utah was finally admitted to the Union, in January 1896, equal suffrage was written into its constitution. The women of the Beehive State put their power to immediate use, electing not only Cannon but two female members of the state house of representatives and eleven female county recorders.

During her four years in office, Cannon was a strong advocate for public health. She introduced bills requiring employers to install seats for their female workers, providing for the education of deaf and blind children, establishing standards for food purity, and creating a state board of health, on which she later served. She defied her husband’s wishes in choosing United States senators, voting against his nephew on one occasion and for an excommunicated Mormon on another. Despite their political differences, Mr. and Mrs. Cannon evidently stayed on good terms; they had a third child in 1899, when she was forty-two and he was sixty-five. After leaving office, Martha Cannon returned to her medical practice and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she died in 1932.