Utahns honor first woman to vote by correcting misspelled gravestone

(Photo courtesy of Sen. Deidre Henderson) Katherine Kitterman, left, Zandra Anderson, center, and Sen. Deidre Henderson, right, visit the headstone of Seraph Young Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

For more than 80 years, the grave of the first woman to vote under an equal suffrage law in the United States was marked with a misspelled name.

Not anymore.

On Tuesday morning, her descendants, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and others gathered at Seraph Young’s corrected headstone in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

“She was a pioneer for women’s suffrage,” Herbert said in a press call after the wreath-laying ceremony. Her story is an example of how people today can also be pioneers and clear a path for future generations, he said.

On Feb. 14, 1870, Young became the first woman — not just in Utah, but in the country — to vote under an equal suffrage law when she cast her ballot in a Salt Lake City municipal election.

While she has been celebrated across Utah this year, on the 150th anniversary of her historic vote, Young faded from public memory pretty quickly after that first election. Her great-grandchildren didn’t learn about their connection to her legacy until just recently.

Team members at Better Days 2020, a nonprofit that promotes Utah’s suffrage history, had to piece together much of Young’s life when they began researching her almost three years ago.

“At that time, we weren’t sure she had voted in the historic election, we didn’t have a photo of her, and we didn’t know what happened to her after 1870,” Katherine Kitterman, historical director for the nonprofit, said in an email.

“Her memory has not always gotten the recognition it deserves," Kitterman said, “but we’re proud of the role we’ve been able to play in rectifying that and honoring the legacy of her historic vote, which has affected not only Utahns but women across the country.”

After she died at the age of 91 in 1938, Young was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with her husband, Seth Leland Ford, who fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. On the back of Ford’s headstone, Young’s first name was listed as “Serath” instead of “Seraph."

Last year, the Better Days 2020 team submitted a request to correct the mistake. With help from the White House, Arlington officials placed a new headstone in March. Young is now also listed on the national cemetery’s website among the prominent women buried there and is described as “a pioneering figure in American history in her own right.”

When a historian first told Russell Rice Jr., who lives in Maryland, that he was the great-grandson of Young, he said he thought “they got the wrong person.” But when he learned that his grandmother, Cherry Ford White, was Young’s daughter, it clicked.

Rice and his own granddaughter, 9-year-old Hope Rice, both attended Tuesday’s ceremony celebrating Young. They were joined by Kitterman, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, Utah first lady Jeanette Herbert and White House officials, including a member of first lady Melania Trump’s staff and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, among others.

“I am sure (Young) had no idea that her simple act of civic duty would set in motion events that would span generations," Henderson said in a statement. "I am grateful that the stories of Seraph Young and other important women who paved the way are finally being unearthed to inspire the women of the future.”

Historians know, based on newspaper reports from the time, that Young was the first American woman to vote, according to Kitterman. None of the other 25 or so women who are thought to have voted with her was named in articles.

Young worked as a teacher at the University of Deseret’s model school, a primary school, when she cast her historic ballot at age 23. She was also the grandniece of Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After first voting in 1870, Congress stripped Utah women of their suffrage in 1887 as part of federal anti-polygamy legislation. They later regained their right to vote when Utah became a state in 1896.

In addition to Young’s milestone, this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which expanded voting rights for women across the country, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act that prohibited discriminatory practices, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, that kept people of color from voting.

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.