When a Utah woman became the first in the country to vote under an equal suffrage law in 1870, local newspapers didn’t splash it across the front page.
“You don’t see anything in the paper at the time saying, ‘Rah! Rah! We’re the very first ones to go to the polls!’ I don’t know if they even recognized that historic significance of it at the time,” said Katherine Kitterman, historical director for Better Days 2020, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting this history.
But this week, Utah newspapers, television and radio news, websites and posts on social media are highlighting celebrations of the 150th anniversary of that historic vote.
On Feb. 12, 1870, Utah’s acting governor signed a bill giving women the right to vote in the territory. Two days later, Seraph Young, a grandniece of Brigham Young, cast a ballot in a Salt Lake City municipal election, becoming the first woman in the country to vote under an equal suffrage law.
Utah women received the right to vote twice before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. After federal anti-polygamy legislation disenfranchised women in 1887, they regained suffrage when Utah became a state in 1896.
The Deseret Evening News reported on Utah women’s first vote in 1870 with an article on page three of the newspaper the following day.
“The Municipal Election of yesterday ought to satisfy everybody, unless there were some desirous of a ‘row,'” the article states. “... Everybody voted as he or she desired and none troubled themselves about it. A few ladies exerted their right to vote under the law published on Saturday; and we believe the first one who recorded her vote was Miss Seraph Young, daughter of B.H. Young Esq.”
Local newspaper coverage didn’t name any of the other women who voted in that first election, but roughly 25 or so women are estimated to have participated, Kitterman said. There’s a commemorative postcard in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints history library featuring “Five Generations of Voting Mormon Women,” which claims that Mary Gibbs-Bigelow and Lucy Bigelow-Young also voted on that day. But Kitterman said she hasn’t been able to find much more information than that.
The New York Times ran the headline “Women Vote in Utah," with an article that questioned whether Utah women would vote against the church’s interest and cast down polygamy, as some U.S. Congressmen and eastern suffragists hoped.
“The result of the first experiments in women’s voting will be watched for with the greatest interest and curiosity,” the newspaper reported.
On Feb. 16, 1870, The Deseret News stated, “On the plural marriage question we are as firmly convinced as we are of our own existence that were its continuance or abolition put to the vote of the female portion of our population to-day it would be sustained by a nine-tenths majority; and upon this score, which has enlisted the mock sympathy of so many, no disadvantage to Zion’s cause will ensue.”
There’s no coverage of that first vote by The Salt Lake Tribune because the newspaper didn’t publish its first issue until the following year.
But other area newspapers reported on the lead up to the Utah Territorial Legislature passing the bill enfranchising women. “A preponderance of the members seemed in favor of the proposed extension of suffrage,” according to a Feb. 2, 1870, article in The Ogden Junction.
The article went on: "What will those folks east and west, who are so worried about the women of Utah being enslaved, say to this step, which places Utah a long way ahead of the most radical New England State in extending to woman equal political rights with man? There is little doubt that ... it will be an effectual squelcher to those luxuriant romancists who have pictured so vividly the slavish and degraded condition of woman in Utah.”
As the bill was considered days later, the newspaper reported, “A number of ladies were accommodated with seats in the Council Chamber, and were evidently much interested in the discussion. The debate was spirited and amicable, sound arguments being advanced with a genial flow of wit and humor.”
On Feb. 12, 1870, the Deseret Evening News congratulated acting governor S.A. Mann for signing the bill into law, “which we have no doubt will afford much satisfaction to all the citizens of the Territory, and will be a lasting honor to his name.”
Mann wasn’t so sure. “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,” he wrote in a letter included with the article. 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.”
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.