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Utah mother was first to vote for son to become U.S. president

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Sophia Christensen, right, was the "first mother in American history to vote for her son for president of the United States" when she cast her ballot for her son Parley P. Christensen, left, according to a Nov. 3, 1920, article in The Salt Lake Tribune.

On Election Day 1920, a Utah family made history. Not only was Parley P. Christensen the first presidential candidate from the Beehive State, but Sophia Christensen also became the first woman in the U.S. to vote for her son to hold the country’s highest office.

A hundred years later, this moment from Utah’s history has been long forgotten. It’s a “fun” story to revive this month, though, as the nation celebrates the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, said John Sillito, a historian and professor emeritus at Weber State University.

While Utah women won, lost and regained the right to vote before the 19th Amendment was ratified, equal suffrage wasn’t extended to women across the country until 1920. Even then, this applied mainly to white women, leaving out women of color who weren’t considered citizens at the time.

Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed for ratification on Aug. 18, 1920. (Utah had already given its approval in 1919, thanks to a resolution proposed by lawmaker Elizabeth Hayward.) Eight days later, the U.S. secretary of state certified the amendment, officially making it law. Aug. 26 is now known as Women’s Equality Day.

When Sophia and Parley Christensen went to vote Nov. 2, 1920, The Salt Lake Tribune documented the “unique event.” The two arrived together at the Salt Lake City polling place located at 1329 Browning Ave. Sophia leaned on her son’s arm as she walked from the car to go inside. Parley, holding his own ballot, waited behind his mother as she cast her vote.

“Before doingwoman so, however, she insisted upon exercising the feminine right of knowing that her hat was on straight, an incident which occasioned some amusement in which she joined heartily,” the article states.

Parley Christensen, an attorney, came in fourth in the election, according to an article in Utah Historical Quarterly. He lost to Republican nominee Warren G. Harding, who served as the 29th president of the United States.

There was no chance that Christensen was going to win as a third-party candidate, representing the Farmer-Labor Party, Sillito said. But “he represented an opportunity for a lot of people on the American left who didn’t want to vote for the Democrat or the Republican” and “were looking for a political home.”

At the time of the 1920 election, none of the other presidential candidates’ mothers was alive, according to Sillito, giving Sophia Christensen the distinction of being the first mother to vote for her son for president.

She was “very supportive” of her son’s run and talked about “what a good boy he is,” Sillito said. The Tribune photographed the two together for an article about his campaign that July, and the 77-year-old was described as a “proud mother.”

“When asked if she thought Parley would be elected, Mrs. Christensen, who is blind, said, laughing, ‘Please fan me,’ ” the article states.

Born in 1843, Sophia Christensen came from Denmark to the U.S. in the wave of Scandinavian immigration in the 1860s, according to Sillito. She lived in Cache Valley and later moved to Salt Lake City to be with Parley.

In 1916, The Tribune interviewed Sophia Christensen about what it was like to have “walked across the plains from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City more than a half a century ago.”

“Yes, indeed, I enjoyed it,” she said. “If there were any hardship, I was not at the age to be aware of them. I was 19 years of age then, and a girl at 19 is likely to be having the best time of her life if it is any way possible. We had the entire prairie to dance in and I actually danced my way across the plains.”

The article also noted that Christensen “often walks” downtown from her Salt Lake City home to the theater.

“‘Of course I enjoy it, or I wouldn’t do it!’ she exclaimed, as she straightened her trim figure with the pride of a woman who knows that she is surprisingly well preserved,” the article states.

Christensen was “past 73 years of age” at the time, the journalist wrote, “and yet is possessed of a phenomenal vigor of mind and body,.”

She “lived a long time,” Sillito noted, and died in 1938 in California, where she had moved to be with her daughter.

Parley Christensen died in 1954. Before running for president, he served as secretary in Utah’s constitutional convention in 1895, Salt Lake County attorney and unsuccessfully ran for Congress.

As Tennessee prepared to vote on the 19th Amendment, Parley Christensen gave a speech saying the Farmer-Labor Party supported suffrage and “urged ratification,” a newspaper reported at the time. He also was photographed outside the National Woman’s Party headquarters in Nashville in August 1920.

Since Christensen, only a handful of Utahns have run for president. Former Sen. Orrin Hatch sought the Republican nomination in 2000, but he dropped out after finishing last in the Iowa caucuses. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman chased the 2012 GOP nod but fell short, while former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson sought the White House as the long-shot Justice Party nominee. In 2016, Evan McMullin, a Provo native and Brigham Young University graduate, ran as an independent as an alternative candidate to Donald Trump. He lost.

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.

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