Martha Hughes Cannon will one day take her place in Washington, D.C., but, for now, she stands in the state Capitol.
On Monday, Utah leaders removed a purple, white and yellow cloth — representing the colors of suffrage — to unveil a statue of Cannon, the nation’s first female state senator who was elected in 1896. More than a century later, some of her descendants were there to see it.
Cannon’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth, “spent years trying to promote her mother and felt that she’d never got the recognition she deserves,” according to Blaine Brady, Elizabeth’s great-grandson. So, it was “exciting” for Brady, who lives in Spanish Fork, and a couple of Cannon’s great-great-grandchildren, Mark Petersen and Arlene Petersen Woodbury, to see the piece in person in Salt Lake City.
“This statue ... is going to inspire generations of women," said Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, the co-chairperson of the Martha Hughes Cannon Statue Oversight Committee.
The unveiling wasn’t what Kwan and other committee members originally planned. They hoped to install Cannon in the National Statuary Hall, in the South wing of the U.S. Capitol, in August, during the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment. But that has been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, “we get to keep her for a little while” in Utah," said Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, who is co-chair with Kwan.
Attendees wore masks Monday and took turns posing for photos with the statue, funded by donations and designed by Utah sculptor Ben Hammond. The piece weighs 550 pounds and stands 7 feet, 6 inches tall. When she was alive, Cannon was just shy of 5 feet, according to Brady.
Cannon eventually will replace a statue of television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth in Washington. State lawmakers approved the switch in 2018, but leading up to that, there were many times it seemed like efforts would fall through, Henderson said.
“There were quite a few people who took this bill kind of as an insult to Philo Farnsworth," she said. “They took it as a referendum on Philo, which it absolutely isn’t, and it never was.”
Each state is represented by two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol. Cannon will become the 10th woman among the pieces. Brigham Young is Utah’s other statue.
“The reason that this statue [of Martha Hughes Cannon] is so meaningful to me and so many others," Henderson said, “is because for too long, the lives and accomplishments of women have been forgotten or overlooked.”
With her statue, people can remember and celebrate Cannon’s accomplishments, as well as the difficulties she had to overcome, Henderson said.
Cannon was in a polygamous marriage with Angus Cannon, a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She twice went into exile to avoid testifying in court as federal lawmakers passed anti-polygamy legislation that resulted in men involved in plural marriages, including Angus, being sentenced to prison. While in hiding, Cannon had to put her career as a doctor on hold.
Mark Petersen, who lives in California, said he has learned a lot about his great-great-grandmother by reading letters that Angus and Martha wrote to each other while she was in exile in England.
“One thing that strikes me is she was a real person," Petersen said. “We talk about all the great accomplishments, but she was like anyone else,” caring for her daughter and navigating her life.
Kwan said when she looks at Cannon’s statue, “I see her strength. I see that sparkle in her eye." Her story “speaks volumes,” and Kwan said she hopes when children look up into Cannon’s eyes, “they can see that fire” she had.
Henderson said she is “honored to be standing on the shoulders of Martha Hughes Cannon.”
“We can learn from and be inspired by her."
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.