Commentary: Celebrating Utah’s history of women’s suffrage

(National Woman's Party Collection, Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument, Washington, D.C.) Sara Bard Field speaking at a women's suffrage rally at the Utah Capitol, Oct. 4, 1915. Emmeline Wells is the woman stooped over to Field's right. Utah Gov. William Spry (with beard) and Salt Lake City Mayor Samuel Park are behind her.

This week, Utah celebrates the 100th anniversary of its ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extended voting rights to women across the country. National suffrage leaders had been working for women’s voting rights for more than 70 years, but opposition and apathy had slowed the progress of the movement.

Utah’s suffrage story was unique. By 1919, when Utah ratified the 19th Amendment, Utah women had already gained decades of political experience as voters and legislators. In fact, it was female legislators who led the ratification process in both houses of the Utah Legislature.

State Sen. Elizabeth Hayward introduced the resolution to ratify the suffrage amendment, Rep. Anna Piercey chaired the session in the House and Reps. Dr. Grace Stratton Airey and Delora Blakely gave speeches in favor of the resolution. The Legislature voted unanimously to ratify the amendment, and Gov. Simon Bamberger signed the joint resolution on Oct. 3, 1919.

The story of Utah women’s political engagement had begun almost 50 years earlier. In 1870, the Utah Territorial Legislature voted unanimously to pass a women’s suffrage law. On Valentine’s Day of that year, about 25 Utah women cast their votes in Salt Lake City’s municipal election, making history as the first American women to vote under a women’s suffrage law. Although Congress revoked women’s suffrage in the midst of the anti-polygamy movement in 1887, Utah women continued their political engagement by forming suffrage associations across the territory to regain their voting rights.

They succeeded in 1896 when the Utah Constitution included an equal suffrage clause that restored women’s suffrage and granted them the right to hold public office for the first time.

Utah women who paved the way for national women’s suffrage included Seraph Young, the first woman voter; Emmeline B. Wells, Utah’s leading suffragist and editor of the Woman’s Exponent newspaper; Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, who became the nation’s first female state senator in 1896; and Minnie Quay and Lovern Robertson, who picketed the White House in support of the 19th Amendment.

Other women from Utah made their mark, including Kate Hilliard, the first woman elected as a delegate to a national political convention; Margaret Zane Cherdron, the first female member of the U.S. Electoral College; and Florence Allen, the first woman to serve on a state supreme court.

By the time Utah’s Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment, Utah women had been voting for a total of 40 years. Utahns had elected 14 women as state representatives, two women as state senators and at least 118 women as county officers.

Still, even after the 19th Amendment became national law, there were many women who faced discrimination at the ballot box due to their race or national origin. As with all social movements, change came slowly through the efforts of many persistent women and men. Women who lived in Utah and continued the fight for truly equal suffrage included Zitkála-Šá, Alice Kasai, Mignon Barker Richmond and Alberta Henry.

In 2020, Utahns will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the 150th anniversary of Utah women’s first vote, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Better Days 2020 was founded to commemorate these anniversaries and share Utah women’s history through education, legislation, and public art. We believe that honoring Utah’s legacy of women’s leadership can build a better foundation for our future. To learn about trailblazing women like our first female governor Olene Walker and many more, visit Betterdays2020.com and https://www.utahwomenshistory.org/bios/ .

Katherine Kitterman

Katherine Kitterman is a Ph.D. candidate in history at American University and is the Historical Director of Better Days 2020.

Ron Fox

Ronald L. Fox is a local historian and businessman.