Holly Richardson: Elevating the voices and the stories of Utah women

Tribune file photo Susan B. Anthony and the Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, national suffrage leaders, met with Utah suffrage leaders in 1895. Anthony is seated third from the right; and Shaw has her hand on Anthony's chair; next to her is Sarah Granger Kimball, then Emmeline B. Wells and Zina Diantha Young (seated), who was general president of the Relief Society when this photo was taken.

In 2014, Mandee Grant was working on research for an English class she was taking and began reading about Martha Hughes Cannon and Emmeline B. Wells. She was shocked — and somewhat angry — that she had never heard about these women. Or of Seraph Young. Or an all-women Kanab mayor and City Council, elected in 1911, almost nine years before the United States passed the 19th Amendment.

Grant asked her friends if they knew the stories of these politically active Utah women and most did not. She asked her children if they had ever been taught the stories of these women in school, especially in their Utah history classes. They had not.

As she began to dig deeper, she found that there were, in fact, many women who had been outspoken advocates for suffrage, for women’s equality and for their communities whose stories were being lost. Women like Hannah Kaaepa who lived in Iosepa, Utah, and lobbied for the right to vote for Hawaiian women. Women like Zitkála-Šá who lobbied for Native people’s civil rights and Mignon Barker Richmond, the first African American woman to graduate from a college in Utah and a life-long activist.

Grant knew she had to elevate these women’s voices and their stories on a broad scale, but how? Curricula for school teachers? Art work? How about a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon in Statuary Hall in Washington D.C.? A license plate? It turns out, it was all of the above and more.

[Read more: Utah women of color were part of fight for equal suffrage, historians say]

As Grant’s ideas began to crystallize and take shape, she reached out and started to engage others in her vision of what was to become the nonprofit Better Days 2020. She began planning sessions with Neylan McBaine, the current CEO of Better Days and an accomplished writer and marketing expert who had already been collecting and sharing human interest stories.

They began to assemble a team and went to work, launching their nonprofit in 2017 with an eye towards this very week, the week that marks the 100th anniversary of Tennessee voting to ratify the 19th Amendment and the last state to push the decades-long efforts over the top.

However, as Grant discovered, 2020 marked not only the 100th anniversary of nation-wide voting rights for women, but the 150th anniversary of the first vote ever cast in an election when Seraph Young dropped her ballot in a box before she went to work as a school teacher in Salt Lake City.

Over the last three years, multiple projects were successfully undertaken and completed. Sadly, the pandemic changed plans for a year-long celebration. Activities and celebrations that were to conclude in the placement of Martha Hughes Cannon’s statue in D.C. this month had to be altered or scrapped. Undaunted, the Better Days team pivoted and found ways to adapt.

One celebration that had to be altered but still moved forward is this weekend’s grand opening of a new memorial to Utah women on the ground of the Council Hall building, just south of the Utah Capitol. The permanent interactive sculpture exhibit draws visitors towards the Capitol as the journey to equal voting rights under the law is laid out. It is very touching and symbolic that the pathway and the doors it crosses grow wider and more accessible as you move along.

Like most movements, the fight for equality did not end in 2020. Women of color were excluded from voting by law or in practice until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted and there is still work to be done, something Better Days 2020 embraces with their recent slogan #HardWonNotDone.

Grant would be the first to give credit to others as the mission of Better Days 2020 marches forward. From board members to historians, from legislators to suffragette re-enactors, from educators to storytellers and from artists to volunteers who have spent countless hours, Better Days 2020 has done much to elevate women’s voices and amplify their contributions.

Emmeline B. Wells once said “I believe in women, especially thinking women.” I am grateful for thinking women like Mandee Grant and the vision she had of elevating the voices and the stories of Utah women.

Holly Richardson (2019)

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.