When the Woman’s Exponent launched in 1872 in Salt Lake City, its creators set out to discuss “every subject interesting and valuable to women.”
That lofty goal was a tad elusive, but the newspaper’s editors “made a valiant effort in that direction” during the publication’s 42-year run, according to Sherilyn Cox Bennion, a professor emeritus of journalism at northern California’s Humboldt State University who has written about the Exponent.
One consistent theme was support for suffrage not only for women in Utah but also for women across the country. For nearly two decades, the motto on the paper’s masthead read, “The Rights of the Women of Zion, and the Rights of the Women of all Nations.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Utah women first winning the right to vote. On Feb. 14, 1870, Seraph Young, grandniece of Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, cast her ballot in a Salt Lake City municipal election. She became the first woman to vote under an equal suffrage law in the United States.
Utah women would later lose and regain their access to the ballot box, all before the 19th Amendment was ratified and added to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. During their fight, the Exponent helped them connect with national suffrage leaders living hundreds of miles away.
“It was not an island of its own here in Utah. It was a mechanism by which the women of Utah shared their voice and their point of view with the women of the nation,” said Neylan McBaine, co-founder and CEO of Better Days 2020, a nonprofit that promotes the state’s suffrage history.
The Woman’s Exponent, one of the earliest periodicals for women in the United States, was published until 1914. Created by and for Latter-day Saint women, it was not owned or sponsored by the church. Still, the Exponent “remained loyal to church leaders and policies,” Cox Bennion said, and featured writings from prominent Latter-day Saint women, including Emmeline B. Wells and Eliza R. Snow.
The semimonthly newspaper was filled with poetry, speeches, editorials, articles, household tips and minutes from the church’s all-female Relief Society meetings. Writers covered religion, “the necessity of education for women, the value of home industries and the question of woman’s proper place in the world,” according to Cox Bennion.
While the Exponent officially ended more than a century ago, a “spiritual descendant” of the newspaper continues today. Exponent II, a magazine and blog, was founded in 1974 in Boston during second-wave feminism. Similar to its predecessor, it serves as a way to share Mormon women’s voices. Today’s Exponent II editors and writers also strive to provide “an intersectional community that amplifies intersectional voices and advocates for equality,” said Margaret Olsen, editor-in-chief.
The polygamy question
Polygamy complicated Utah women’s relationship with leading suffragists, according to Katherine Kitterman, historical director of Better Days 2020.
The National Woman Suffrage Association supported Utah women’s right to vote, although Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the association’s leaders, hoped they would use the ballot as a means to end plural marriage. Meanwhile, leaders of the rival American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone, Kitterman explained, “thought working with polygamous suffragists from Utah would hurt the suffrage cause and damage their respectability."
In the late 19th century, Latter-day Saint women were portrayed as “downtrodden, weak and uneducated” in political cartoons in newspapers and anti-Mormon literature. A cartoonist for the New York Daily Graphic “embellished and perpetuated the stereotype of Mormon women as inconsequential pawns in the hands of their male leaders leaders” by depicting “male church representatives, disguised in female attire, delivering the women’s petition” defending their right to vote.
The Woman’s Exponent provided an outlet for Utah women to counter that narrative, particularly through editorials. The first issue stated, “It is better to represent ourselves than to be misrepresented by others!”
“This newspaper was their voice to the world, and they recognized that," McBaine said. “They recognized how important it was.”
To help spread their message, Emmeline B. Wells, a leading Utah suffragist, distributed copies at women’s meetings and events she attended across the country, said Bennion Cox. In 1879, she represented Utah at the National Woman Suffrage Association convention and spoke before congressional committees and President Rutherford B. Hayes.
Wells ran the Exponent for 38 years, after taking over for the paper’s first editor, Louisa Lula Greene Richards. She had a close friendship with Susan B. Anthony, and their alliance helped strengthen Utah’s connection to the national suffrage movement. After Anthony died in 1906, one of her gold rings was sent to Wells as “a symbol of her friendship and legacy,” according to Barbara Jones Brown, executive director of the Mormon History Association.
The Utah Constitution
When Utah made a bid for statehood in 1895, Wells and other suffragists saw an opportunity.
After first voting in 1870, Utah women were disenfranchised in 1887 as part of federal anti-polygamy legislation. Eight years later, women in the territory fought to restore their access to the ballot box by including equal suffrage in the state constitution.
“Don’t be deluded by any specious reasoning, but demand justice now," Anthony said in a letter printed in the Woman’s Exponent. “Once ignored in your constitution — you’ll be as powerless to secure recognition as are we in the older states.”
As the constitutional convention met, the Exponent described the debates and ran editorials. The April 1895 issue included a resolution presented by Wells and other suffragists to the delegates.
“We believe that now the time clock of American destiny has struck the hour to inaugurate a larger and truer civil life," it states, “and the future writers of Utah history will immortalize the names of those men who, in this Constitutional Convention, define the injustice and prejudice of the past, strike off the bonds that have heretofore enthralled woman, and open the doors that will usher her into free and full emancipation.”
They were successful, and when Utah was admitted as the 45th state in 1896, its women not only were able to vote but could also hold office. This applied mainly to white women, though, leaving out women of color, who weren’t considered citizens at the time.
In the following years, the Exponent urged national and international acceptance of women’s suffrage, according to Cox Bennion, and reported on the organizations working toward the goal.
The newspaper eventually evolved into Wells’ personal property, and she wanted the Relief Society, of which she was the general president, to take over the Exponent. Instead, the Relief Society Magazine was created in 1914.
In her “heartfelt farewell” in the final issue of the Woman’s Exponent, Wells wrote, “May you contributors continue in your chosen calling; may you readers ever find good and worthy material for your leisure moments, and may God bless you all.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.