Living history: Ferguson pushed for women’s equality in frontier Utah
Long before Ellen Brooke Ferguson landed in Utah in 1876, she was imbued with the spirit of the American West and its women who were independent, frank, focused, and dedicated to women’s rights and family welfare.
Born in Cambridge, England, Ferguson received a comprehensive education at home with private tutoring by university professors, only to discover few vocations were open to women.
In 1857, she married Dr. William Ferguson and, an avid pupil, studied medicine. In 1860, before the onset of the Civil War, the Fergusons immigrated to Eaton, Ohio. They purchased a weekly newspaper, the Eaton Democrat. Ferguson worked as editor but, as employees left for battle, expanded her responsibilities by furnishing copy and setting type. Taken with politics, she included articles on women’s suffrage.
"Knowing that it would probably take years before women would be recognized as the political equals of men, she felt every opportunity of extending woman’s influence into politics should be used to the utmost," historian Orson F. Whitney wrote in the 1904 "History of Utah."
After the war, the couple sold their paper. Although she had no formal medical accreditation, Ferguson skillfully worked alongside her husband. Elected vice president of the Northwestern Woman Suffrage Association, she also lectured on the women’s rights movement, and raised a family.
In 1876, Ferguson learned of her husband’s interest in the Utah Territory. They traveled west, joined the LDS Church and opened their practice in Salt Lake City.
Three years later, Ferguson established the Utah Conservatory of Music above David O. Calder’s music store downtown. An 1880 advertisement in the Salt Lake Herald recommended the conservatory’s "refined, expressive and intelligent interpretations of classical music" and "advanced studies in English, German and Italian singing."
That same year, William Ferguson died. His widow devoted herself to modern medicine. She went to New York, enrolled in hospital clinics, and attended classes in obstetrics, gynecology, and surgery. Returning home to Salt Lake, she developed a plan to build a hospital.
"An institution greatly needed in the community, when the plan was presented to [LDS] President John Taylor and counselors, it was approved by them, and all possible aid given to help put it into practical operation," Whitney wrote.
The Deseret Hospital was dedicated in July 1882. One of President Brigham Young’s wives, Eliza R. Snow, was appointed president of the institution. Ferguson was hired as resident physician and surgeon. Patients were charged $3 a day.
Two years later, Ferguson’s name was "dragged through the mud." She was accused of being demanding, dictatorial, incompetent, and an "opium eater, drunkard, and thief." The hospital board requested her resignation, but hands of fellowship were finally extended. In 1890, the hospital, burdened with financial debt, was shuttered.
Ferguson was a Democrat and suffragist who defended polygamy. In 1886, she was sent among others to Washington, D.C., to protest the punitive Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Law. She worked on numerous campaigns to see the women suffrage provision incorporated into the new 1895 Utah Constitution.
On Jan. 4, 1896, Utah, having recanted polygamy, became the 45th state admitted into the Union.
In July, Ferguson was elected alternate to the National Democratic Conference in Chicago. The New York Times reported, "The fact that Utah sent [a woman] to the convention has provoked much interest, and many opera glasses have been turned upon the tier of seats given over to the Utah delegation."
The paper concluded, "[She] is a quiet little woman who dresses very modestly and conducts herself decorously, but is prepared to discuss finance, tariff, or Jeffersonian Democracy with intelligence."
Following the convention, Ferguson organized and led the Salt Lake Women’s Democratic Club, an auxiliary of the County Committee. Fostering the study of the "fundamental principles of government," the club later withdrew as an auxiliary and went forward on its own.