Commentary: It’s time to send Martha Hughes Cannon to Washington

We can’t be what we can’t see.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Todd Weiler has introduced a bill for January's legislative session to replace Philo T. Farnsworth's statue in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., with Martha Hughes Cannon, pictured, the first woman state senator.

Statues can seem like an old-fashioned sort of thing. But bronze or marble or plastic or concrete, it is the image — and the care we take to represent it with skill — that encodes the values of a culture into permanent form. It is the investment we make to immortalize something longer lasting than ourselves that matters.

This is why we should care what, and more importantly who, represents Utah in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building.

Each state is allowed to have two statues in the U.S. Capitol that represent the best of their people. Utah’s statues are Brigham Young, and, for the past 30 years, Philo T. Farnsworth. States are allowed to rotate their statues every 10 years. So it’s time to send Martha Hughes Cannon to D.C.

In February, state Sen. Todd Weiler will be proposing a resolution to the state Legislature to send a privately funded statue of Martha Hughes Cannon to D.C. in the year 2020.

Why Martha? Martha “Mattie” Hughes Cannon was a highly trained physician, passionate suffragist, progressive public health reformer and, most notably, the first female state senator in the United States. She received four degrees before the age of 25, including from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, where she was the only woman in her class.

Upon settling in Utah after her schooling, Mattie established a private medical practice and became the resident physician at the woman-run Deseret Hospital (now a part of Intermountain Healthcare).

In 1896, after Utah attained statehood, Mattie ran for a position in the new state Legislature. Notably, she ran as a Democrat against her polygamous husband, Angus M. Cannon, who ran as a Republican. According to the Salt Lake Herald at the time, “She is the better man of the two,” and Mattie won the election.

Her medical background prompted her to focus on public health legislation, and she revolutionized health services in Utah during her four years in the Legislature. She lived what she preached: “[L]et us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness, but strive to become women of intellect, and endeavor to do some little good while we live in this protracted gleam called life.”

And while she was remarkable, she was also indicative of legions of Utah women of her time who were civically active, ambitious and innovative.

Images in our public sphere both reflect what is important to us as a people, and define what we value. Better Days 2020, the organization supporting Sen. Weiler’s resolution and carrying out the creation of the statue, is part of a valuable movement that is identifying gaps between what we see in our public iconography, and what we value and hold dear. If we truly do value women, their contributions to public and private life and to our modern culture, then we should have powerful visual reflections of that value in our public images.

Currently in National Statuary Hall, only nine of the 100 statues are women. A growing investment in women’s history is uncovering that, even though women haven’t been part of the public dialogue for most of history, they have still made important contributions that should be celebrated.

Conversely, the images and symbols we see everyday become our values. According to the well-known adage, we can’t be what we can’t see. When we promote public images of women, we normalize the expectation that women are vital to civic development. As decision-makers and leaders shaping new generations, our choice of public imagery help craft the kinds of character, accomplishments and contributions we value from our public servants.

Today, Utah has largely forgotten the tremendous legacy of women’s advocacy left to us by Mattie Cannon and many others. Despite our “firsts” in the political realm, we now have some of the fewest female elected officials of any state in the country. Despite being the first to cast ballots in the United States and territories, we now have some of the lowest female voter participation of any state. Despite the tremendous educational credentials of our foremothers, we now struggle to have women graduate from college at the national rate. We need symbols in our public iconography that remind us of what kind of women we used to value and what it means to be a Utah woman in the future.

When Martha arrives in D.C. in 2020, the whole country will be celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, granting women across the country the right to vote. Utah’s women were the first to cast ballots in the nation, in 1870, and so it is appropriate that Utah plays a part in celebrating this historic milestone nationwide. When Martha arrives in D.C., she will be carrying on her bronze shoulders the hope and accomplishments of her past generation, the bright legacy that is Utah women’s history, and the promise of even better days ahead.

| Courtesy Neylan McBaine, op-ed mug.

Neylan McBaine is the CEO of Better Days 2020, a commemoration of Utah being the first place where women voted in the U.S.