How polygamy helped Utah women get the right to vote
(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Depicting women gaining the right to vote in the Utah Territory in 1870, the Seraph Young Votes mural is seen above the House Chamber at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.
In February 1870, Utah women became the first in the country to vote under an equal suffrage law. The triumphant version of this history celebrates the state’s early dedication to equality for women.
But the driving force behind the milestone was arguably Utah’s fight to preserve polygamy — a practice under new attack after the end of the Civil War.
“Women’s suffrage and polygamy were intertwined from the beginning here,” said Katherine Kitterman, historical director for the nonprofit Better Days 2020. “And so the discussions about enfranchising Utah women wouldn’t have happened when they did without polygamy as a factor."
After the Utah Territorial Legislature passed a bill enfranchising women, the acting territorial governor reluctantly signed it into law 150 years ago Wednesday — Feb. 12, 1870.
“I have very grave and serious doubts of the wisdom and soundness of that political economy which makes the act a law of this Territory,” S.A. Mann said at the time. But he deferred to the “the unanimous passage of the act in both the House and the Council,” and the “judgment of many whose opinion I very much respect.”
During Reconstruction after the Civil War, Congress wanted to eradicate polygamy, considered one of the “twin relics of barbarism” along with slavery. Some U.S. congressmen and suffragists on the East Coast thought that if Utah women were enfranchised, they would vote against leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and end plural marriage.
“Boy, did they miss that one,” quipped Kathryn MacKay, a history professor at Weber State University.
Instead, for Latter-day Saint women, voting was a way they could help defend polygamy and counter a national perception that they were oppressed, historians say.
And as the national battle over polygamy continued, Congress stripped Utah women of their suffrage in 1887. They would regain the right to vote when Utah became a state in 1896.
“Utah has one of the more complex histories of woman suffrage, which gives [Utahns] all the more reason to explore each suffrage anniversary looking at their remarkably interesting historical context,” Provo native Lola Van Wagenen
, president of Clio Visualizing History, wrote in an email.
‘Enfranchised without running wild’
Congress was interested in testing out suffrage, and the Western territories after the Civil War seemed like the safest and easiest places to do that, said Kitterman with Better Days 2020, which promotes the state’s suffrage history.
The New York Times popularized the idea of starting with Utah in an 1867 editorial.
“Perhaps it would result in casting out polygamy and Mormonism in general," it said. “... Here would be a capital field for woman suffrage to make a start, and we presume nobody would object to the experiment.”
Editorials in The Deseret News, which is owned by the church, supported the move.
“Utah is giving examples to the world in many points, and if the wish is to try the experiment of giving females the right to vote in the Republic, we know of no place where the experiment can be so safely tried as in this Territory,” George Q. Cannon, editor of the newspaper and a Latter-day Saint apostle, wrote in March 1869.
“Our ladies can prove to the world that in a society where men are worthy of the name, women can be enfranchised without running wild or becoming unsexed.”
There was also interest in countering the perception of Latter-day Saint women as “downtrodden, weak and uneducated,” as they were portrayed in political cartoons in newspapers and anti-Mormon literature, said Jenny Reeder, 19th-century women’s history specialist for the church History Department.
Suffrage was a way for them to “rebrand their image,” she said.
MARKING A MILESTONE
These events are planned Wednesday to mark the 150th anniversary of Utah’s territorial governor signing an equal suffrage law.
9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.: Free activities for children at the Capitol, including a scavenger hunt with prizes, storytellers featuring women from Utah history and displays.
12:30 p.m.: A sing-along of “Champions for Change” song will be held in the Capitol Rotunda.
1 p.m.-2 p.m.: Gov. Gary Herbert and first lady Jeanette Herbert will commemorate the anniversary in the Gold Room. The event will feature Utah poet laureate Paisley Rekdal. A ticket is not required to enter the Gold Room, but space is limited and will be standing room only. Doors open at 12:50 p.m.
Anti-polygamists had “made assumptions” about women without fully understanding the dynamics of being a Latter-day Saint, said MacKay, at Weber State. When Utah women first went to vote, they “embraced suffrage not as a way to throw off their ‘bonds’ but rather to publicly defend polygamy."
Some were surprised by this, she said, but male church leaders “had every confidence that the enfranchised Mormon women would vote” to uphold the faith and its practices.
While some historians have argued Latter-day Saint support of suffrage was an attempt to strengthen the church’s hold on politics, Utah historian Thomas Alexander argues that wasn’t necessary because members already were “an overwhelming majority in the territory.”
Instead, suffrage fit the “progressive sentiment among the Mormons at the time," according to Alexander, who was on the history faculty at church-owned Brigham Young University for four decades.
National movements were divided over whether to support Utah women. Susan B. Anthony and the National Woman Suffrage Association saw Utah as a way to advance the fight, while the members of the American Woman Suffrage Association distanced themselves from polygamy.
‘Trusted political partners’
Utah women weren’t marching or drafting petitions for suffrage, but there are signs that women in the territory were starting to think about what the vote could mean for them, Kitterman said.
On Jan. 6, 1870, leading Latter-day Saint women gathered to plan a large protest the following week against federal anti-polygamy legislation. But at that meeting, the women also demanded the right to vote and to send two representative women to Washington, D.C.
While the minutes from that meeting document those points, a Deseret News article did not. It’s unclear whether those demands were censored or whether the women perhaps deliberately kept them quiet, Kitterman said.
Such gaps are part of the reason why Latter-day Saint women’s efforts during this time often are overlooked, Van Wagenen said.
“It seems to me that the sisters seemed to believe that any action or language that appeared overly assertive might undercut their interests," Van Wagenen said, “and it was better to be unseen and effective rather than attracting attention and ineffective.”
At the protest the next week, on Jan. 13, 1870, more than 5,000 Latter-day Saint women gathered at the Old Tabernacle in Salt Lake City for what became known as the “Great Indignation Meeting.”
Their focus was protecting polygamy, not gaining suffrage.
The women “were trying to protect their religious freedom” as they gave “fiery” and “passionate” speeches, talking about the “persecution” they had faced in practicing their faith, Reeder said.
“We are not here to advocate for woman’s rights, but man’s rights,” said Sarah Kimball, president of the Relief Society, the church’s women’s organization, as quoted in the Deseret Evening News.
“It’s interesting to me," Kitterman said, " that … (Latter-day Saint women are) entering this political debate on behalf of men, in some ways, because it’s men’s rights that are threatened technically by the law."
But women are “also using that as a way to open a door for themselves,” she said. They were showing they could be “trusted political partners” if they were enfranchised.
The revival of the faith’s Relief Society in the 1860s had allowed women to gather, plan meetings and voice their opinions, Reeder said. After getting the vote, the group also organized civics lessons for women.
“The Relief Society was just sort of a ready-made setup for any kind of political activism,” Reeder said.
Wyoming was actually the first to pass an equal suffrage law, in December 1869 — and it also gave women the explicit right to hold office, while Utah did not.
Historians agree that one of Wyoming’s motivations was empowering women to try to attract more of them to the territory.
Other Western territories were also attempting to pass suffrage before Utah. “Dakota missed its golden opportunity for fame when its legislature failed by just one vote to pass a woman suffrage bill in January 1869,” historian T.A. Larson wrote in a 1970 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly.
Women had voted in the country before then. In Kansas, women were able to vote in limited elections, such as for school board, Kitterman said. And until 1807, some women in New Jersey, mainly unmarried women, could vote as long as they were “worth 50 pounds,” according to the National Park Service
But good timing worked on Utah’s behalf — Utah women went to the polls twice before Wyoming held an election, giving the territory the distinction of having the first women to vote under an equal suffrage law.
Utah gave the right to vote to any woman who was 21 or older, a resident of the territory for at least six months and born or naturalized in the U.S., or the wife, widow or daughter of a citizen.
Although legislators didn’t specifically address race, existing laws at the time excluded Native American women and women of Asian descent from voting, according to Kitterman. Even after the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, it would take years for all women to be fully enfranchised.
“I believe that acknowledging woman suffrage this year should be a time for reflection," Van Wagenen said. “A time to consider those who were or who remain disenfranchised for economic, cultural or social reasons.”
The most significant way to honor the achievements of “all those who worked laboriously to pass woman suffrage” is by voting, she added. “It is a duty and a privilege we need to wholeheartedly respect.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.