Martha Hughes Cannon’s life goes deeper than her role as first female state senator

(Photo courtesy of Arline Brady) Martha Hughes Cannon became the first female state senator when she was elected in 1896.

Martha Hughes Cannon’s name is usually followed by “the nation’s first female state senator.” Often she’s also described as a suffragist and a physician; sometimes as a polygamist.

She’s typically placed on a pedestal among historical Utah women as a groundbreaking pioneer — and held up as evidence, despite persistent inequities, that Utah has a tradition of welcoming women into roles of power. A statue of Cannon, unveiled last month at the state Capitol, eventually will be displayed in Washington, D.C.

At first, author Marianne Monson found Cannon “off-putting, just because her list of accomplishments was so incredible" and she "seemed too perfect.” As Monson dug deeper, though, she realized the struggles this “incredibly brilliant, competent woman” had faced.

Cannon longed for, but was denied, a home where she could live openly with her husband and children. She experienced depression, jealousy and disappointment — a pregnancy scandal cut her political career short just as she was being considered as a U.S. Senate candidate — along with love and success.

“The contradictions are what make her fascinating," said Monson, author of “Her Quiet Revolution,” a historical fiction novel about Cannon’s life.

“She worked hard” and “put herself out there,” said Constance L. Lieber, a biographer of Cannon. Most of all, “she kept reinventing herself.”

While Cannon’s accomplishments are certainly worth celebrating, it’s everyday details from her life that reveal her inner struggles and dreams and make her relatable, Lieber said. “So often our idols become larger than life,” but “Mattie’s life was fantastic” without the accolades.

Cannon was twice forced to abandon her medical practice, after the births of her first daughter and her son, to evade federal scrutiny of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the prosecution of polygamy.

When her political career ended after the birth of her second daughter, Cannon continued her work in public health and advocated for suffrage. In her later years, spent in California, she devoted her time to her children, the most important people in her life, Lieber said.

In many ways, Cannon’s life was similar to other Utah women at the time, said Jenny Reeder, a 19th-century women’s history specialist for the church History Department. She wasn’t the only one who navigated plural marriage, and there were a few other female doctors at the time. Still, Reeder said, Cannon “was a very independent woman with a very clear sense of herself."

Cannon balanced her passion for being a mother with her drive “to use her intelligence to contribute to society in meaningful ways,” which is “such a modern dilemma,” Monson said. And she found “other areas of fulfillment beyond the cliche romance."

“Her life," Monson said, “is incredibly relevant.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A statue of Martha Hughes Cannon is unveiled at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. The piece will temporarily be on display in the Utah Capitol until COVID-19 restrictions allow for a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

‘Private person' in the spotlight

While Cannon lived for years in a public spotlight, she was also “a very private person,” Lieber said. Cannon instructed people to get rid of letters she sent after reading them, and she had her son destroy her journals after she died.

However, Angus M. Cannon, Martha’s husband, kept the letters she sent him. Many of those survive today, including their correspondence while she was in exile. Researchers have also gained insight into her life from newspaper accounts, letters a friend saved, and from her oldest child, Elizabeth, who “made it her life mission to share her mother’s story,” Lieber said.

Born in Wales in 1857, Cannon arrived with her family in Utah in 1861 to join the Latter-day Saints. Some researchers think that the deaths of her baby sister along the journey and her father shortly after they arrived in Salt Lake City motivated Cannon to later become a doctor, Reeder said.

While studying chemistry at the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah), Cannon saved money for medical school by working as a typesetter for the Deseret News and Woman’s Exponent, a Salt Lake City newspaper that was one of the earliest periodicals for women in the U.S.

Cannon went on to earn her medical degree from the University of Michigan and then studied at the University of Pennsylvania. She also received a certificate from the National School of Oratory and Elocution, and Utah newspapers later noted that she was a “forcible and eloquent speaker.”

After returning to Salt Lake City, Cannon set up her private practice and became the resident physician at the female-run Deseret Hospital. That’s where she met Angus Cannon, the president of the Salt Lake LDS Stake, who was also a member on the hospital board.

Marriage in exile

She became Angus Cannon’s fourth wife in a secret ceremony in 1884, at the height of federal legislators' crackdown on polygamy. She was 27 and he was 50.

Since the early 1840s, church members had “viewed plural marriage as a commandment from God,” and while not all “were expected to enter into plural marriage, those who did so believed they would be blessed for their participation,” according to the church’s website. Meanwhile, Congress wanted to eradicate plural marriage, considered, along with slavery, one of the “twin relics of barbarism.”

People today may wonder why Cannon chose to become a polygamist’s wife at such a tense time, but “we have to separate the past from the present,” Reeder said. Plural marriage was being taught in the late 19th century, she said. And although her parents didn’t practice plural marriage, Cannon herself believed in polygamy. Plus, “it was pretty much love at first sight” for her and Angus Cannon, according to Lieber.

The two wrote “beautiful love letters,” Monson said, and “you really get a sense of the admiration and respect they had for one another. ... Martha truly loved him. But I think, ultimately, polygamy broke her heart."

The couple were never able to live together publicly, and “for every good day, there were five bad days” in the Cannons' marriage, Lieber said. They had “weeks where they were barely on speaking terms."

When Angus Cannon was arrested in 1885, Cannon dodged federal marshals. He was sentenced to prison for six months for “unlawful cohabitation.” She fled to England with their infant daughter to avoid testifying against him, or in cases involving the plural families of babies she’d delivered.

In her two years away from home, Cannon used different names in her letters to avoid being found. “To close friends, Mattie wrote of her ambition, her desire to ‘accomplish something more in this life,’” Lieber said, but “as her exile abroad continued, Mattie’s letters changed in tone.”

“They became full of pain, jealousy, loneliness, and depression, lacking the usual ‘good-humor in spite of trials’ of her earlier letters,” according to a book Lieber co-edited, “Letters From Exile: The Correspondence of Martha Hughes Cannon and Angus M. Cannon, 1886-1888.”

In 1887, Cannon wrote, “you could never realize my present situation unless you were suddenly banished seven thousand miles from the scenes of your former activity, your identity lost, afraid to audibly whisper your own name and limited to one correspondent, whose letters as he himself states have been ‘written in a constrained and cautious manner,’ sans sentiment.”

While she was away, Angus Cannon took two more wives. She “struggled between accepting polygamy intellectually and understanding it with her heart,” and her "need to be secure in his love … is another constant theme” in her letters, according to the book.

Cannon returned to Utah in 1888, restarted her work as a doctor and advocated for women’s suffrage. She went into exile a second time, to California, after having her second child, James, in 1890, and later returned again.

The first female state senator

After first winning the right to vote in 1870, Utah women were disenfranchised in 1887 as part of anti-polygamy legislation. In the ensuing years, Cannon joined leading Utah suffragists advocating for women to regain their access to the ballot box, giving speeches herself locally and at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and in Washington, D.C.

She argued that "one of the principal reasons why women should vote — is that all men and women are created free and equal.” But she wasn’t a feminist in the way we think of the term today, Lieber said.

“Obviously, she thought the office of senator ... was fine for women. She did say that the office of governor was too masculine," and becoming sheriff required women do things they shouldn’t, such as arrest people, according to Lieber.

After Utah was admitted as the 45th state in 1896, women became able to not only vote in the state, but to also hold office. This applied mainly to white women, though, leaving out women of color, who weren’t considered citizens at the time.

That November, Cannon ran as a Democrat for one of five open state Senate positions. There were 10 candidates — five Democrats and five Republicans — in the race. Angus Cannon and Emmeline B. Wells, a leading Utah suffrage leader and Latter-day Saint, were on the Republican ticket.

Newspapers played up how Cannon not only ran against — but also defeated — her husband in the election. She was popular, but she also benefited from being part of the Democratic Party, which won all five seats, according to Lieber. Two other Democratic women, Sarah E. Anderson and Eurithe K. LaBarthe, were also elected as state representatives.

“Some sources seem to indicate it caused a bit of tension between (Martha and Angus)," Monson said, “but outwardly they claimed that it was fine.”

When asked in an interview after the election what she thought of becoming the first female senator, Cannon replied, “I hadn’t thought of it in that light. I do seem to be a sort of milestone, don’t I? Well, I will have to try to live up to my privileges.”

(Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society) Martha Hughes Cannon, the woman in front on the left, was the first female state senator in the United States. She's pictured with the Utah senate and secretaries in 1897.

Martha worked on “really progressive legislation for the time,” Reeder said, introducing a bill requiring employers to provide places for women and girls to rest while not working. She also helped establish the state board of health, and she supported educating students who had impaired speech and hearing.

She worked on public health issues that people today take for granted, Reeder said, such as sanitation and prevention of contagious diseases, among other topics. Before beginning her political career, she established a nursing school, and she later became involved with the American Congress for Tuberculosis.

“Mattie’s time in the [state] Senate caused tension with Angus," Lieber said. Back then, state legislators, not the general public, elected U.S. senators. In her votes, “she went against Angus’ will." Once, she supported Moses Thatcher, who had been dropped from the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and was not supported by the faith’s leaders. Another time, she refused to back Frank J. Cannon, Angus Cannon’s nephew.

Cannon herself was put forward as a potential U.S. senator, according to Lieber, but her political career came to a crashing halt when she gave birth to her third child, Gwendolyn, in 1899.

“It was a huge scandal,” Lieber said.

Life after politics

In July 1899, The Salt Lake Tribune ran the headline, “ANGUS M. CANNON UNDER ARREST,” with a drawing of him holding a crying baby, captioned, “You are causing your poor old father much trouble.” The Ogden Daily Standard reported, “Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon is gaining as much notoriety over giving birth to a baby girl as is accorded an Empress or Queen when an heir to the throne is born.”

Nine years earlier, church President Wilford Woodruff had issued the 1890 Manifesto, marking the beginning of the end of Latter-day Saint polygamy. It wasn’t immediately clear, though, how established plural families should proceed and how a husband’s relationships with his wives would look, Reeder said.

While there were other polygamous births after 1890, the arrival of Martha and Angus Cannon’s second daughter was big news because they were such prominent figures, Lieber said. When approached by reporters, Cannon refused to comment on her husband’s arrest, but “she delightedly exhibited the 10 weeks' old baby, which, as she says, has ‘raised all the rumpus,’” according to the Salt Lake Herald-Republican.

“And the mother, as she dangled the small bundle, insisted that she must not worry over the result of the new fight, because she had to get strong and well to take her baby away from the hot weather and the city,” the reporter wrote.

(Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society) Martha Hughes Cannon in 1899 with her daughter, Gwendolyn. The scandal surrounding Gwendolyn's birth ended Cannon's political career.

Angus Cannon was convicted of unlawful cohabitation and fined. Cannon’s trajectory changed — she did not run in the upcoming election for a second term, and she went back and forth to California, eventually moving there permanently. She continued giving occasional speeches and remained involved in public health. Angus Cannon died in 1915.

Cannon devoted herself to her children and grandchildren, but not in the bake-a-pie, doing-needlework sense. She was pragmatic and impatient, according to Lieber, and threw rocks down the hill from her home, located behind her son’s house, when her grandchildren were being too noisy.

Gwendolyn’s death from tuberculosis at age 29 in 1928 “was the beginning of the end of Mattie,” Lieber said, since she “never could forgive herself that she was a doctor and couldn’t save her daughter.”

Cannon died at age 75 in 1932 in Los Angeles. Utah newspapers reported the passing of the first female state senator, and she was buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery, next to Angus.

She has been back in the public eye this year as Utah celebrated the 150th anniversary of women first getting the right to vote in the state and the centennial of the 19th Amendment.

Her name and image are scattered across Salt Lake City. The main campus of the Utah Department of Health was dedicated in her honor. A sculpture of her stands outside the state Capitol, while another one inside will eventually head to the National Statuary Hall in D.C. A plaque is also planned to honor her in her birthplace, Llandudno, Wales.

And on the northeast corner of 200 West and South Temple is a rock on a slab of concrete marking where her office and home once stood. A plaque on the rock states: “In memory of Martha Hughes Cannon ... Pioneer doctor. First woman state senator in U.S. Author of Utah sanitation laws. Member of first state board of health.”

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.