Anne Wilde can rattle off Martha Hughes Cannon’s accomplishments.
Cannon was a Mormon pioneer, physician, suffragette and the first woman elected to a state Senate in Utah and the country. Those are the reasons, Wilde argued, a statue to her should be placed in the U.S. Capitol.
She also was a polygamous wife. And her story runs counter to the stereotype often attached to plural marriages.
“It does set an example that you don’t have to be barefoot and pregnant,” said Wilde, who was a plural wife for 33 years until the death of her husband.
“For me, as a plural wife, [Cannon is] a beautiful example of strength and determination, and just overall being an intelligent freethinking person that’s not afraid to pursue her course regardless of the outcome,” said Catrina Foster, who lives in the Rockland Ranch community near Moab. “And that captures a lot of plural wives. I know so many intelligent, professional women who are plural wives.”
In recent interviews, plural wives and women in so-called fundamentalist Mormon churches voiced support for Utah replacing its statue of television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth at the U.S. Capitol with one of Cannon. The women also articulated the same complicated and contradictory views of Cannon that historians have noted.
Some of the wives see Cannon as a woman who overcame one of the common complaints associated with polygamy — a husband who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend to her. Other admirers view her as proof that polygamy is not inherently oppressive of women.
The wives and their supporters also see a statue as part of Utah’s complex relationship with polygamy. Legislators, the plural wives say, celebrate the opportunities polygamy gave a woman like Cannon, but insist the modern practice of it makes women victims.
“I have always felt that she was able to accomplish what she did because she was a plural wife, not in spite of it,” said attorney Laura Fuller, a plural wife in the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group. “So when people say it’s ironic that a plural wife from Utah fought the hardest for equal rights, I don’t find it ironic at all.”
Fuller insists a statue of Cannon would have more meaning to plural wives like her than to other women. Fuller, who learned about Cannon years ago while studying the history of polygamy in Utah and women’s rights, views Cannon through an empowering theory of polygamy.
Having multiple wives in the family, the notion goes, provides a support structure for each woman to pursue her goals. Chores and child rearing can be divided to all the spouses’ satisfaction, enabling a wife like Cannon to have a career. Cannon was the fourth of Angus M. Cannon’s six wives.
Many Utah polygamists assert some connection to Cannon — they are either relatives of Angus Cannon or, like Wilde, grew up with people who are.
“[Cannon is] a great example of the success a plural wife can make,” said Carlene Cannon, a woman “in a committed relationship” within the Davis County Cooperative and a descendant of one of Martha Cannon’s relatives. “It’s important for all citizens to be active in the political process in their community.”
But Marianne Watson, a historian who has associations with these fundamentalists, said that while Cannon is worthy of a statue, her marriage was challenging.
Watson noted that Cannon was married in 1884 during Mormon polygamy’s underground period. Federal authorities were investigating and jailing polygamists, and so the marriage was a secret even to some of the bride and groom’s family. The next year, Cannon’s husband was in jail when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child.
In 1886, Cannon fled to Europe to avoid warrants compelling her to testify against her husband and other polygamists. She spent two years in exile.
“My particular view is that plural marriage is difficult, and it can strengthen you or break you,” Watson said. “And, in her case, I think it strengthened her.”
Cannon’s letters to her husband, including those penned during her exile, revealed her problems coping with her husband’s absences, according to scholarly accounts. She also threatened divorce.
After returning to Utah, her husband was one of the Republicans whom Cannon, a Democrat, defeated in 1896 to become the first woman in the United States to hold a state Senate seat. Late in life, she physically separated from her husband, choosing to split her time between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied Mormon polygamy, said Angus and Martha Cannon appeared to have a rocky relationship. Although in at least one newspaper interview, Cannon seemed to enjoy the liberty her plural marriage gave her.
“This may not have been one of those serene plural marriages that we hear about sometimes,” Gordon said.
Watson sees the way Cannon coped with the difficulties in her marriage as another of her successes.
“Ideally, plural wives develop over years or a lifetime an ability to be interdependent in their relationships with their husbands rather than independent or dependent,” Watson said, “and I believe that is something Martha achieved to a great degree.”
Cannon was a public supporter of polygamy, even arguing, as women like Fuller do now, that it offers freedom for women to pursue their own endeavours.
Angela Briney, a plural wife whose family is the star of the new television reality show “Seeking Sister Wife,” wrote a blog post Thursday. She noted that if the resolution replacing Farnsworth’s statue with Cannon’s passes, Cannon would sit in the National Statuary Hall Collection with the most famous polygamist from Utah’s territorial days: Mormon prophet Brigham Young.
“I could not think of a more fitting picture of a representation of patriarchy and matriarchy,” Briney wrote, “[than] Martha Hughes Cannon and Brigham Young standing statuary side by side, absolutely shattering the stereotypical image of iron-fisted patriarchal Mormonism.”
Briney also compared her own family to Cannon’s time in polygamy’s underground. The Brineys, whose family includes three wives, moved to Oregon after the Utah Legislature passed House Bill 99 last year. The bill made it easier to prosecute polygamists and increased the penalties for it when convicted in concert with crimes such as sex or child abuse and fraud.
“The traditional Mormon polygamist woman was on equal ground with her brother,” Briney wrote. “So while the legislators behind HB99 view modern polygamous women as weak and oppressed, we are shouting to them that we are not! Release us from your bondage!”
HB99 was sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab. He and former plural wives and children of polygamists spoke of abuses that occur within polygamous households and said prosecutors needed better tools to pursue them. Polygamists called the measure discriminatory and said existing abuse and fraud statutes could be used to prosecute those offenses.
“Polygamists ought to be better received in society,” Auralee Briney, one of Angela’s sister wives, said in a phone interview. “Putting [Cannon’s] statue there kind of makes a statement that we have a place in society and a positive place in society.”
Fuller said her family faces the same fear of prosecution Cannon’s family endured. “It would actually be harder today for a plural wife to be a senator.”
The text of the bill that would create the statue, Senate Concurrent Resolution 1, makes no reference to Cannon being a polygamist. During the Senate floor debate about the statue last week, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, the resolution’s sponsor, referenced Cannon fleeing to Europe to avoid testifying against her husband and other polygamists.
The resolution passed the Senate. The Utah House of Representatives has yet to vote on it.
Emeilia Wayman is a 26-year-old Salt Lake City resident who has fundamentalists in her family. She doesn’t like how many people assume all plural wives are like the ones in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — wearing prairie dresses, big hair and beholden to the demands of their leader.
Wayman hopes people will look at a Cannon statue and see a better kind of polygamy.
“It’s great to have women honored for any reason,” she said, “and to have it with a polygamy background, I think is cool.”