Katharine Biele: Utah is no bastion of women’s rights

(Photo courtesy of Katherine Kitterman) Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at an event at Arlington National Cemetery honoring Seraph Young on Sept. 29, 2020.

Could we not make everything about abortion? Should it be the one issue on which senators confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court? Should it be the overriding reason that Republicans cannot bring themselves to vote for a Democrat? And, most importantly, should it be the one barrier to women’s equality under the law?

Perhaps you say women already are equal, and there is no need to worry your little heads about it. We see billboards proclaiming Seraph Young who, in 1870, became the first woman to vote in the nation under an equal suffrage law. Utah’s governor even honored her at a graveside service, and the Legislature saw fit to grant Better Days 2020 $1 million to perpetrate that false narrative.

It’s not so much false as misleading. In 1887, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, most likely an anti-polygamy effort that struck down the enfranchisement of women in the Utah Territory. Charlotte Godbe might have been a better beacon of feminism, working for suffrage as early as 1869, but she was not as sweet a story as Young because her husband, from whom she later divorced, had been excommunicated from the church.

The Seraph story serves a purpose — to paint Utah as a beacon of women’s rights. It’s just not so. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is uniquely responsible for the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, not only in 1975, when the Legislature first voted it down, but throughout the United States until the present. Yes, the Legislature still refuses to take up the call for equality.

Women and the church have both evolved since then, and yet the LDS Church has reaffirmed its opposition to the ERA, fearing some kind of unisex society and a breakdown of social mores protecting women and families. All this because of the simple phrase “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Much has changed since 1975, but the statistics don’t favor women. Workplace inequality and discrimination, a 19% pay gap from men, the achievement gap in schools and even health care discrepancies persist.

The Eagle Forum used to say it worried about women being conscripted into the military. However, women have pushed forward to join the military on their own.

The end of marriage as we know it? Not likely. And abortion? While men seem to think women take abortion lightly, there has yet to be a man who has gone through the painful and emotional procedure. Women want only dominion over their own bodies — not the unfettered ability to abort at will.

So don’t pretend that Utah is a bastion of women’s rights. As we celebrate 100 years since the 19th Amendment, remember “you’ve got a long way to go, baby.”

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City.