In the pioneer, even polygamous past, things looked more promising for women in the state.
Let’s start with three underreported facts about Utah women.
First • On Valentine’s Day in 1870, a 23-year-old schoolteacher from Salt Lake City became the first American woman to vote in a public election.
(Utah, however, was not the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote. Wyoming obtained this distinction in December 1869. Wyoming simply had not yet held an election to put this new law in practice.)
Second • When Utah transitioned from territory to statehood in 1896, it enshrined political equality for women in its state constitution. Only two other states had yet done so.
And Third • Immediately after joining the Union, Utah became the first state to elect a woman to serve in its state legislature. Martha Hughes Cannon, a physician, beat her own husband for the seat and used her time in office to help create the Utah Department of Health.
So, what happened ? Today, Utah is known for being on the opposite end of the spectrum of equality and women’s rights. Nationally, for example, the gender pay gap is about 18%, meaning women earn 82 cents for every dollar men earn for full-time work. In Utah, it’s 30%, making Utah one of the worst states for women financially.
It’s not the only problem. Over the past four years, Utah has earned the dubious distinction of ranking last of 50 states in terms of women’s equality, as determined by 17 metrics including academic achievement, earning capacity, representation in government, business ownership and other factors.
One of the keys to implementing equal rights may be to look back to a time when things looked more promising for Utah women, especially politically. Neylan McBaine’s 2020 book “Pioneering the Vote: The Untold Story of Suffragists in Utah and the West” aims to do just that.
“How does no one know? McBaine asked when she started working on the project in 2016, referencing Utah women’s successful fight for suffrage half a century before the right was granted to women nationwide. While scholars and historians have long known of the role Utah women played in the suffrage movement, most ordinary citizens did not.
The nonprofit Better Days 2020, which McBaine co-founded, began approaching institutions and individuals for funds to increase the visibility of women in Utah history. They’ve trained 1,000 teachers across the state, developed a website as an information goldmine, created a Utah license plate to celebrate women’s suffrage, and even raised money for a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon be on permanent display at the United States Capitol.
Most people, McBaine notes, were thrilled to learn how Utah women were “leading the way” in the fight for women’s equality. But she noticed a difference in how different groups received their requests for support. Institutions other than Latter-day Saints, she said, were more receptive than was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, despite the fact that the main players in the suffrage movement in Utah were all Latter Day Saints.
Why the hesitation? McBaine believes it’s because of polygamy, which many of Utah’s most visible women practiced in the 19th century. Cannon, for example, was the fourth wife of six.
“When we went to religious institutions or people who were members of them and told them this story, their response was, ‘We can’t talk about it. It’s going to be embarrassing for us,” McBaine said. “It was really interesting how the story was received and praised by non-members but less so by members. Today we don’t know how to grapple with the fact that this great triumph was tied to plural marriage.
McBaine also feels that some more conservative voices within the church, of which she is also an active member, may not fully agree with the notion of the advancement of women in public life and politics. After encouraging women to vote and run for public office in the 19th century, the church experienced a major entrenchment in the 20th, promoting the idea of the home as the only sphere for women and organizing vigorously in the 1900s. 1970 to defeat the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. .
And it’s ironic, McBaine notes, because the language of the ERA as written in the 20th century was partly based on the long-standing example of the Utah Constitution, which promised that ” the rights of citizens of the state of Utah to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on the grounds of sex”. The wording of the 1972 ERA was that “equal rights under the law shall not be denied or restricted by the United States or any state on account of sex.”
“We’ve been living under this law all this time, but since there’s no case law, people don’t really know it exists,” McBaine said. “A lot of fears surround the ERA, but we could have seen that they were unwarranted by looking at our own state’s constitution.”
McBaine sees reason for hope, both for Utah women and for Latter-day Saint women. For one thing, this book was published by Shadow Mountain, the national imprint of Deseret Book, the official publishing house of the church. Which means the church has a desire to see this story reclaimed.
McBaine also sees greater openness in the church to women’s voices, including greater attention to the Heavenly Mother, “and the normalization of Heavenly Parents. It’s been a lifesaver for a lot of people.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. McBaine recently attended a ward conference for his congregation in which there were 37 men at the helm—including the entire stake (area) high council and many male priesthood leaders—and only one woman, who led the hymns.
“There is absolutely no excuse for this,” McBaine said.
“There needs to be a general reassessment of gendered leadership from the top down,” she added. “I don’t know what more we can do at the local level to really change the administration. It must be a massive, global change from below or come from the top down.
“I will say the next thing that has to happen is that the girls have to pass the sacrament. And soon, otherwise we will continue to lose my own daughters and the daughters of their generation.
(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)