A woman’s place is in the House. And the Senate.
So goes a popular slogan on bumper stickers, mugs and T-shirts. Still, it remains a struggle for some in Utah to see women in the House and the Senate. Considering it’s been over 100 years since the first woman was elected in Utah, it seems surprising that there is still so much pushback.
Exhibit #1: The current debate over Martha Hughes Cannon, the first women ever elected to a state Senate seat, and whether her statue can replace Philo T. Farnsworth’s in our nation’s capitol. Some contend that she is not “Utahn” enough, or wonder if she had much impact. The answer to both of those questions is an unequivocal yes.
She emigrated to Utah with her family at age 4. She began teaching school at age 14 and supported her pre-med education at the University of Deseret by working as a typesetter for the Deseret Evening News and the Women’s Exponent.
She was blessed and set apart by John Taylor, President of the LDS Church, to study medicine. It’s fair to say that was her calling — her mission, even. Schooling complete, she returned home to Utah where she opened a thriving private practice. She was 25 years old. She was soon issued an LDS calling to became a resident physician at Deseret Hospital, a position which she accepted. She also began training nurses and midwives, something she continued to do for many years.
While back east for medical school, Mattie, as her friends called her, also studied public speaking. She was strong-willed and outspoken about public health and then about her other passion — women’s right to vote. She spoke eloquently and convincingly on suffrage, arguing that “one of the principal reasons why women should vote … is that all men and women are created free and equal.
Once in office, she introduced legislation to provide education for children with disabilities and advocated for workplace protections for women and girls who were being exploited. She also helped to write many of Utah’s early sanitation laws and was the sponsor of legislation that created the State Board of Health.
But, Martha still has her haters. Not everyone wants to see Philo Farnsworth share the spotlight and SCR1, the resolution advocating for the change, is currently stuck in the House Rules Committee. If you’d like to see that bill get to a standing committee, feel free to email the members of the House Rules Committee. (You can find their information at le.utah.gov, then search for the House Rules Committee.)
That brings me to Exhibit 2: The mansplaining and talking over women that can happen at the Capitol.
Last week, Rep. Kim Coleman was in an appropriations hearing and had some pointed questions about where large allocations of money were going. As a legislator, she is in a position of oversight and is responsible for taxpayer dollars. She is right to ask questions about where your money is going. She was first patronized (don’t worry about that — that’s why we have university presidents), then had her microphone cut, then later got a lecture about her “tone.”
On a video posted on her Facebook page, Coleman explained what happened, including being told that her questioning was “harsh” when she was on “the same team” as the person asking for that hefty appropriation.
“When I sit on that dais,” she said, “I am not sitting in the friend seat. I am sitting in the oversight seat.”
She is there to represent her district and the taxpayers of Utah. Asking pointed questions and expecting answers is part of the job. So is an expectation of being able to speak without interruption or having your stances explained to you.
Once upon a time, Utah led the nation with its forward-thinking leadership and views on the equal worth of women. Martha Hughes Cannon represents that proud history. As we approach 2020, we are celebrating the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. We are also celebrating, and rightly so, that the first legal vote cast by a woman was done in Utah a full half-century sooner.
Martha Cannon, a senator more than 20 years before women could vote in every state, deserves to go to Washington as a reminder to all of Utah’s proud history. Perhaps the state that needs the reminder most of all is Utah.
Holly Richardson knows that many members of the Utah Legislature are respectful to both their male and female colleagues, but she also knows there is work to be done. If you doubt her, just read the comments on this article, or any other article about Martha Hughes Cannon. Or on any woman in politics.