Utah women of color were part of fight for equal suffrage, historians say

(Photos courtesy of Better Days Utah 2020) Elizabeth Taylor, left, Alice Kasai, Zitkála-Šá and Hannah Kaaepa are Utahn women of color who fought for equal voting rights.

Earlier this year, Utahns learned about Seraph Young, the first Utah woman to vote, as well as the first woman to vote under an equal suffrage law in the United States.

And this week, during the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, people will celebrate famous national suffragists, such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul.

[RELATED STORY: Suffrage celebrations ‘bittersweet’ for women of color whose fight continued after 19th Amendment]

The stories of women of color who fought for equal voting rights are not as widely shared and often overlooked. In Utah, those leaders include Elizabeth Taylor, Alice Kasai, Hannah Kaaepa and Zitkála-Šá. The nonprofit Better Days 2020 has highlighted their stories and the lives of other instrumental women from state history throughout the year.

“Sometimes we say, ‘Women only got involved in politics once they could vote,‘” said Katherine Kitterman, historical director for Better Days 2020.

But that’s not true. Women’s political participation extended beyond voting, she said, and they made their voices heard years before they could fully access the ballot box.

Elizabeth Taylor (1874-1932)

It’s hard to determine whether Black women cast ballots when Utah women were first enfranchised in 1870, according to Kitterman. No voting records survive from that time. And while nothing written in Utah’s law categorically excluded them, she said, there also aren’t clear accounts of whether Black people were turned away because of their race.

Utah women later lost suffrage under a federal law that targeted polygamy. There’s more information available about Black women and men’s political participation in the period when groups fought to restore suffrage by including it in the state’s constitution in 1895, Kitterman said.

The Colored Women’s Republican Club, where Elizabeth Taylor was secretary, held a rally that summer. A speaker emphasized “the necessity for registering to vote” and said “to beware of statements made by certain registrars that colored ladies, as well as working girls, were not entitled to register,” according to an article in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Taylor also was the president of the Western Federation of Colored Women. In 1904, she told a crowd in Salt Lake City, “I am truly proud of this movement; being a race woman, I have looked with sorrow upon the condition of our women for many years and I believe that the colored women should stand together more than any other class of civilized women in the world.”

She published the Utah Plain Dealer, one of Salt Lake City’s Black newspapers in the 1890s, with her husband, William W. Taylor. He unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate in 1896 in the same race Martha Hughes Cannon was elected the first female state senator.

Elizabeth Taylor later worked on a resolution calling on the Salt Lake City Council to “pass an ordinance … assuring of equal rights to all American citizens, regardless of color, in the hotels, restaurants and inns of the city,” according to historian Amy Tanner Thiriot.

(Photo courtesy of Better Days 2020, Amy Tanner Thiriot and Josephine Taylor Dickey) Together with her husband, Elizabeth Taylor published the Utah Plain Dealer, one of the Black newspapers in Salt Lake City in the 1890s.

Hannah Kaaepa (1873-1918)

Born in Hawaii, Hannah Kaaepa immigrated to Utah with her mother in 1898 and settled in Iosepa, which was “a colony of native Hawaiian Mormons ... in Tooele County,” according to Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, who teaches history at Montana State University. Their move occurred “against the backdrop of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy,” Queen Liliuokalani, whom Kaaepa’s mother was close with, as well the annexation of Hawaii to the U.S.

The following year, Kaaepa went with prominent Utah suffragists to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the National Council of Women. Kaaepa urged members “to use their influence to support Queen Liliuokalani in her efforts to secure suffrage for the women of Hawaii.”

“She ended with an expression of love in her native language and presented flower leis” to female leaders, including Susan B. Anthony, according to Hendrix-Komoto.

Queen Liliuokalani, who was living in D.C. at the time, told Kaaepa that she “made a good impression, speaking in native and wearing with dignity the modified costume of her people, decked in leis and shells.”

(Photo courtesy of Better Days 2020 and Noe Poulsen) Hannah Kaaepa, right, pictured with her mother and sister, advocated for Hawaiian women's rights.

Zitkála-Šá (1876-1938)

After growing up on a reservation in South Dakota and attending a boarding school for American Indian children, Zitkála-Šá married Capt. Raymond Talefase Bonnin in 1902 and moved to Utah. She lived and worked among the Ute Indian Tribe for 14 years.

In 1916, Zitkála-Šá moved to Washington, D.C., and “began lecturing to promote the cultural and tribal identity of Native Americans” and “promoted a pan-Indian movement to unite all of America’s tribes in the cause of lobbying for citizenship rights,” according to Barbara Jones Brown, executive director of the Mormon History Association.

Even after Native Americans were able to become citizens in 1924, many states continued practices that prevented them from voting. Utah was the last state to remove its residency requirement, according to Jennifer Robinson, co-author of the book “Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote.”

In 1897, the Utah Legislature passed a law prohibiting American Indians who lived on reservations from voting. After contradictory opinions from state attorneys general over the years, Preston Allen, a Native American living on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, challenged the law. Before the U.S. Supreme Court could rule on the case, the state Legislature “removed the prohibitory language” from state code in 1957, Robinson said.

(Photo courtesy of Better Days 2020 and the National Museum of American History) Zitkála-Šá, who lived in Utah in the early 20th Century, fought for Native American civil rights.

Alice Kasai (1916-2007)

Alice Kasai and her husband, Henry Yoshihiko Kasai, “were the first Japanese Americans to live in the Avenues [neighborhood] in Salt Lake City,” according to Rebekah Clark, a historical research associate for Better Days 2020.

During World War II, Henry was arrested and placed in an internment camp for 2½ years. This led to Alice becoming the first female president of the Japanese American Citizens League in Salt Lake City, advocating for Utah’s Japanese community and helping to coordinate assistance for families in camps.

After the war, the couple lobbied for citizenship and other civil rights. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1922 that Japanese immigrants were ineligible for citizenship, and it wasn’t until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952 that Japanese and other Asian immigrants could become U.S. citizens, according to Better Days 2020.

In addition to helping establish Salt Lake City’s International Peace Gardens, Alice Kasai dedicated herself to multiple organizations, including Utah United Nations and the Utah Citizens Committee for Civil Rights, among others. She also lobbied for fair housing, employment, education and other rights for minorities, Clark said.

(Photo courtesy of Better Days 2020 and the Kasai family) Alice Kasai and her husband, Henry Yoshihiko Kasai, pictured here in 1937, fought for citizenship and other civil rights for Japanese immigrants.

This article is based on research published by Better Days 2020. For full stories and additional information, visit utahwomenshistory.org.

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.