Utah women’s suffrage became ‘hotly debated issue’ in bid for statehood

( The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Susan B. Anthony and the Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, national suffrage leaders, met with Utah suffrage leaders in 1895. Anthony is seated third from the right; and Shaw has her hand on Anthony's chair; next to her is Sarah Granger Kimball, then Emmeline B. Wells and Zina Diantha Young (seated), who was general president of the Relief Society when this photo was taken.

Utah women had already received, and lost, the right to vote once. So when a second opportunity came around to enshrine equal suffrage in the state constitution, they were ready.

Suffragists across Utah lobbied politicians and submitted thousands of petitions in favor of their efforts. But they faced a looming fear from their opposition: Would enfranchising women risk Utah’s chances of statehood?

This question became the most “hotly debated issue” of the state’s constitutional convention in 1895, according to Utah historians. Ultimately, the delegates voted overwhelmingly to enfranchise Utah women and give them the right to hold office when Utah became the 45th state the following year. This applied mainly to white women, though, leaving out women of color who weren’t considered citizens at the time.

Crowds gathered 125 years ago this month to watch the debate. “It must have been wild,” said Kathryn MacKay, a history professor at Weber State University. Women stood on tables to hear and there was “not an inch of standing room" at the Salt Lake City-County Building, according to newspaper reports at the time. At one point, there was a suggestion to move to a bigger venue.

It was new and experimental when Utah women first got the right to vote in 1870, MacKay said. Utah seemed like a safe place to test out suffrage, and East Coast politicians expected women in the territory would vote against leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and end plural marriage. But after Latter-day Saint women used their ballots to defend polygamy, Congress stripped Utah women of their suffrage in 1887.

During the push in 1895 to regain those rights, there were eloquent speeches, grassroots efforts and eventually a celebratory visit from national suffragist Susan B. Anthony. But, MacKay said, it was “really a fight."

Wait for suffrage

Utah had already made a handful of attempts to become a state when the constitutional convention began March 4, 1895, in Salt Lake City, said Katherine Kitterman, historical director for Better Days 2020, a nonprofit that promotes the state’s suffrage history. Congress had cleared the way with the Enabling Act the year before, after the church president issued an 1890 Manifesto, marking the beginning of the end of Latter-day Saint polygamy.

B.H. Roberts, a Davis County politician and writer, was the most vocal critic at the convention, arguing “that adoption of woman suffrage would be dangerous to the acquiring of statehood.” He worried Utah voters might reject the state constitution if it enfranchised women, and about how Congress would react, since only Wyoming and Colorado had passed equal suffrage at the time.

(Utah State Historical Society) B.H. Roberts.

Women should wait to vote until after Utah became a state, according to Roberts. But Susan B. Anthony urged Utah women that they shouldn’t delay their rights “because it’s way harder” to get them later, Kitterman said.

Various church leaders held different positions about suffrage, but they generally “weren’t happy” with the aggressive stance taken by Roberts, a member of the faith’s First Quorum of the Seventy, “and they let him know so,” said John Sillito, a historian who’s studied Roberts. Roberts, however, was “stubborn” and took his own initiative.

While not unanimous, “there was widespread support for women’s voting rights in Utah” in 1895, Kitterman said. A convention committee recommended Utah include suffrage in its constitution since “most members of the committee had found it difficult to find a reason why women should not have political equality,” according to Jean Bickmore White, a political science professor at then-Weber State College, who wrote about the topic.

But Roberts prolonged the debate. He was a powerful speaker who had “great stage presence” and made logical arguments, Sillito said. Roberts spoke for hours in an “oratorical avalanche,” according to one newspaper. Part of the reason why so many people came to watch was to see Roberts in action, Kitterman said. But it was also because women had so much at stake in these discussions.

Women’s push

Utah suffragists had “laid the groundwork” before the convention, Kitterman said. Six years before, they formed the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah and had local groups in at least 21 counties. Women lobbied both the Republican and Democratic parties and the 107 delegates to secure their pledges. They collected thousands of petitions to counter anti-suffrage petitions. So when the convention kicked off, Kitterman said, they expected a fairly smooth passage.

Emmeline B. Wells, the president of Utah’s suffrage association, and other women presented memorials and attended early proceedings, reminding the men of commitments they’d made.

“We believe that now the time clock of American destiny has struck the hour to inaugurate a larger and truer civil life, and the future writers of Utah history will immortalize the names of those men who, in this Constitutional Convention, define the injustice and prejudice of the past, strike off the bonds that have heretofore enthralled woman, and open the doors that will usher her into free and full emancipation,” a memorial from Utah suffragists stated.

The women stressed that “the sky didn’t fall when women were voting” after 1870, arguing, "we can go to vote just as easily as we can go to the post office. ... Homes won’t be neglected if we do this. … We’ve proven that we can do this without completely upending society,” according to Kitterman.

While Roberts suggested that women belong in the home, other delegates argued that women’s enfranchisement was the right thing to do. Franklin S. Richards, the husband of suffrage leader Emily S. Richards, “gave one of the most forceful speeches in favor” of suffrage, according to Better Days 2020.

(photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society) Emily S. Richards, left, was prominent in the Utah women's suffrage movement. Her husband, Franklin S. Richards was a lawyer for both Salt Lake City and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“If the price of statehood is the disfranchisement of one-half of the people; if our wives and mothers, our sisters and daughters, are to be accounted either unworthy or incapacitated to exercise the rights and privileges of citizenship,” then Richards said he was “content” staying a territory until “all can stand side by side on the broad platform of human equality, of equal rights, and of equal capacity.”

National connections

Part of Utah women’s success in 1895 was the “strong link” they’d developed with national suffragists, MacKay said.

“Emmeline B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony, that was an important relationship,” she said. Wells “was tireless” in her advocacy and building connections with the national movement.

During the 1870 push, Latter-day Saint women tried to counter a national perception that they were “downtrodden, weak and uneducated” and would blindly vote with their husbands and the church. In 1895, some people brought up these old arguments again, questioning whether women’s suffrage would give the church “too much power,” Kitterman said.

The dynamic between Mormon and non-Mormon women had changed in those 25 years, though, said Jenny Reeder, a 19th-century women’s history specialist for the church History Department. While polygamy divided some Utah women in 1870, these groups had “finally united in some areas as they prepared to represent Utah” in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Reeder said.

Utah women came together again when Susan B. Anthony visited Utah in May 1895, the month after women’s suffrage was added to the state constitution. Before a crowd of thousands of people, Anthony and fellow suffragist leader Anna Howard Shaw congratulated the territory, engaging “in a good, old-fashioned love feast in common with their sisters of Utah,” according to a report in The Salt Lake Tribune.

“This is really a moment," Kitterman said. "If you’re going to graph the ups and downs of suffragists in Utah, this is the high point.”

(photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society) These people were the delegates and officers to Utah's Constitutional Convention held in Salt Lake City on March 4, 1895.

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.