On a snowy April morning in 1895, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gathered within the walls of the Salt Lake Temple and unanimously declared themselves committed to women’s suffrage.1 That same day, a large group of Relief Society women gathered nearby in the Salt Lake Assembly Hall and unanimously stood in favor of including women’s suffrage in Utah’s newly designed state constitution.2 In that defining moment, such unified support for the most pressing women’s rights issue of the day by both the governing body and the official women’s organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was noteworthy. Anomalous circumstances years earlier had stimulated broad support for women’s suffrage among both leaders and lay members of the notoriously patriarchal Church of Jesus Christ. Widespread cooperation between men and women—and the endorsement of the territory’s predominant church—made the suffrage experience of Utah women unique within the national suffrage movement. While this support inevitably varied among individuals in both intensity and motivation, the blending of those distinct voices during Utah’s fifty years of suffrage activism reveals an instructive alliance among Latter-day Saints.
In nineteenth-century Utah, a community saturated with religiosity, activism on behalf of women became imbued with a powerful spiritual dimension. Latter-day Saint doctrines of individual agency, female divinity, and eternal progression fostered theological support for the principle of women’s equal rights. Practical experiences of pioneering new settlements, raising families alone while husbands served missions, and practicing plural marriage engendered women’s independence and interdependence. Wider spheres opened for Utah women than were traditionally available within the “Cult of Domesticity” of the Victorian era, though they did not completely escape its influence.3 Early Latter-day Saint women developed a deep commitment to women’s collective action, a profound understanding of their own authority, and a steadfast devotion to the Church of Jesus Christ. These convictions coalesced into active participation in the suffrage movement in the late nineteenth century. Latter-day Saint women were genuinely dedicated to expanding women’s rights and strengthening women’s collective influence for good, and they also understood that suffrage advocacy positioned them to defend the Church during a period of intense national attacks. Utah’s progressive suffrage laws and politically active women counteracted negative stereotypes and secured useful allies in Washington, D.C., allies who helped advocate on behalf of Utah when political and suffrage rights were being threatened by antipolygamy legislation. Recognizing that shared religious objectives transcended gender divisions, Latter-day Saint women and men cultivated a suffrage partnership founded on a rich history of united dedication to building the Kingdom of God on earth.
At a time when most American religious denominations were divided within themselves on the issue of suffrage, members of the Church of Jesus Christ displayed uniquely widespread support for women’s voting rights from the early days of the women’s movement. In analyzing this unity, it is critical to recognize that while Latter-day Saint women constituted the vast majority of women in Utah, their suffrage experience did not represent all Utah women. A small but vocal coalition of dissident Saints, along with those who were not members of the Church, sought to end polygamy and politically weaken the Church by opposing women’s suffrage in Utah.4 In effect, this division further mobilized Latter-day Saints. Unity on the issue of suffrage became a matter of religious survival. Over time, some women of other faiths joined the Latter-day Saints in advocating for Utah women’s voting rights, creating another level of partnership that bridged religious divisions.5
The Latter-day Saint suffrage experience also did not encompass the involvement of many women of color, who were marginalized within suffrage dialogues and activism throughout the nation because of discriminatory federal laws and local practices. Most Native Americans and Asian immigrants were federally barred from citizenship and voting rights for several more decades and had to wage their own struggles for voting equality.6 While Utah’s small but significant African American population demonstrated active political involvement by the 1890s, Black women’s participation in the suffrage movement remained largely separate from the efforts of Utah’s official suffrage associations.7 This paper focuses on the suffrage activism of Latter-day Saint women and men while recognizing the important and ongoing efforts of other Utah residents to obtain political rights.
Suffrage activism was marked by a striking degree of collaboration among Latter-day Saints, particularly during the nineteenth century. Progress would not have been possible without the active engagement and efforts of outspoken, broad-minded, and steadfastly faithful women and men working together on behalf of women. Although divisions arose, most Latter-day Saint women and men worked in concert to defend the rights of their community while carefully navigating tensions raised by individual expression and diverging voices. In general, Latter-day Saint suffragists sought to be assertive without being adversarial, progressive without being divisive, confident without being confrontational, and unified without being identical. By working within, rather than against, the existing hierarchical structure of their community, they more effectively accomplished their goals of defending their religious beliefs, regaining suffrage rights with statehood, and supporting the national movement to extend those rights to women throughout the nation. As Susa Young Gates, an ardent suffragist and prominent Latter-day Saint leader in the early twentieth century, summarized, “Harmony of voices makes music. Harmony of human efforts and of actions, brings peace. It is the comparative unity of action in the group which brings civilization and progress into all life.”8 By merging progressive activism with their advocacy for religious beliefs, Latter-day Saint suffragists blended different voices, fostered unity, and achieved a high level of harmony and progress toward women’s political equality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Foundations of Enfranchisement
By the time Utah was preparing for statehood, the vast majority of Latter-day Saint men and women had long been vocal advocates of women’s political rights. The idea of women’s suffrage in Utah was first suggested by the New York Times in the late 1860s as a low-risk method to test suffrage and possibly eradicate polygamy.9 In response, the Church-sponsored Deseret Evening News immediately embraced the idea of enfranchising women and expressed confidence that Latter-day Saint women would in fact uphold Church policies, affirming, “The people of Utah are not afraid of the consequences of giving the women of the Territory the right to vote.”10 The paper later declared itself an “earnest advocate for Women’s Rights” and asserted, “The plan of giving our ladies the right of suffrage is, in our opinion, a most excellent one.”11
Such an endorsement had its roots in the deep cooperation and mutual trust that had been fostered among the Saints since the earliest days of the Church. Joseph Smith taught the women that “all must act in concert or nothing can be done.”12 Mary Fielding Smith observed the spiritual unity felt among members in the Kirtland temple in 1837, recalling that “the Brethren as well as the Sisters were all melted down and we wept and praised God together.”13 When the Prophet Joseph Smith “turn[ed] the key to” the women as he organized the Relief Society “according to the ancient Priesthood,” he promised that “knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time—this is the beginning of better days” for women.14 Many Latter-day Saints later attributed the start of the women’s movement to the formation of the Relief Society, claiming, “The sure foundations of the suffrage cause were deeply and permanently laid on the 17th of March 1842.”15 President George Albert Smith provided an even more expansive view of the “better days” promised by Joseph Smith, testifying in 1945 that “when the Prophet Joseph Smith turned the key for the emancipation of womankind, it was turned for all the world, and from generation to generation the number of women who can enjoy the blessings of religious liberty and civil liberty has been increasing.”16
In many ways, women in the early Church enjoyed a community where their voices were valued, their spiritual authority was acknowledged, and their contributions were respected. As the Saints moved west, the demands of pioneer life facilitated a more public role for women in Latter-day Saint communities. Historian Lola Van Wagenen has observed, “In these efforts, they learned to move forward carefully enough to avoid problems, but forcefully enough to break new ground.”17 Church leaders sanctioned women’s public role by emphasizing unity and shared goals. Although women were still circumscribed by Victorian notions of separate spheres, Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow encouraged Utah women to attend medical school and enter trades and professions, “urging the Sisters forward to be more useful and to take a wider sphere of action.”18 While reorganizing the Relief Society in Utah in 1868, President Eliza R. Snow defined union as “the soul of successful concentrated action” and counseled, “United effort will accomplish incalculably more than can be accomplished by the most effective individual energies.”19 Utah’s early endorsement of equal suffrage went beyond political expediency and indicated a trust in the joint partnership of men and women to improve society. In an editorial by George Q. Cannon, the Deseret News urged, “With woman to aid in the great cause of reform, what wonderful changes can be effected! Without her aid how slow the progress! Give her responsibility, and she will prove that she is capable of great things; but deprive her of opportunities, make a doll of her, leave her nothing to occupy her mind, . . . and her influence is lost.”20
In January 1870, as Latter-day Saint women publicly demonstrated this influence by engaging in collective political action on behalf of the Church, they continued to emphasize cooperation and unity. At a women’s mass meeting protesting federal antipolygamy legislation, speakers declared that women were “one heart, hand and brain, with the brotherhood of Utah,” that they were “co-workers in the great mission of universal reform,” and that “in the Kingdom of God, woman has no interests separate from those of man.”21 In what was perhaps the easiest legislative victory of the suffrage movement, just a few weeks later Utah women became the first female citizens in the nation to vote under an equal suffrage law.22 The suffrage bill was unanimously passed by the territorial legislature, composed entirely of Latter-day Saint men, and was signed into law on February 12, 1870. Two days later, twenty-five women voted in a Salt Lake City municipal election. A new era of political partnership had begun.
Women in the Church had mostly positive but some mixed reactions to this newly won right, demonstrating the inherent diversity of opinion within women’s experiences even in a relatively homogenous group like nineteenth-century Relief Society women. On February 19, a week after Utah’s historic suffrage legislation was signed into law, a large group of Latter-day Saint women’s leaders met in the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society Hall. Sarah M. Kimball boldly declared that she could now “openly declare herself a womans rights woman,” clarifying that “the interests of man and woman cannot be seperated [sic].” The meeting minutes record that many of the women similarly “manifested their approval” of women’s rights. Wilmirth East announced, “I have never felt that woman had her privileges. I always wanted a voice in the Politics of the Nation, as well as to rear a family.” Presendia Kimball alluded to the collective benefit that women’s suffrage could provide: “I am glad to see our daughters elevated with man and the time [will] come when our votes will assist our leaders.” Acknowledging the need for restraint, Phoebe Woodruff said she was “pleased with the Reform and . . . had looked for this day for years,” but she warned that they should “not run headlong and abuse the privilege.” Even Margaret T. Smoot cautiously admitted, “I have never had any desire for more rights than I have. I have always considered these things beneath the sphere of woman. But as things progress I feel it is right that we should vote.”23 For the bolder advocates of women’s rights, like Kimball, their already progressive beliefs uniquely aligned with their spiritual commitment to defend the Church, providing expanded opportunities for public activism. For initially reluctant women, like Smoot, the sanction they received from male and female leaders in the Church likely persuaded them of the acceptability and even necessity of extending their “sphere.” Despite variation in their reactions and motivations, these faithful women resolutely and unitedly used their new political voices not only to defend their own rights and beliefs but also to actively support the expansion of equal suffrage throughout the nation.
As Latter-day Saint women entered and engaged in the political arena, their experiences reflected a blend of caution, cooperation, faith, and outspoken advocacy. Eliza R. Snow, the Relief Society General President, supported women’s suffrage but cautiously tried to distance Latter-day Saint women’s activism from “strong-minded” women engaged in a “war of sexes.”24 Indicating her insular approach, she emphasized, “In the Church and Kingdom of God the interests of men and women are the same; man has no interests separate from that of women, however it may be in the outside world, our interests are all united.”25 Emmeline B. Wells, Utah’s most prominent suffragist, sought to create bridges rather than distance between Latter-day Saint women and other national suffragists, vocally advocating for progressive reforms such as equal pay, equal job opportunities, and a national women’s suffrage amendment.26
Although more progressive than Snow on women’s rights issues, Wells and many other Latter-day Saint suffragists remained devoutly faithful and never suggested a full upheaval of the patriarchal social order. Wells empowered women to act as partners with men but warned against the militancy and confrontation that occur “when women seek to essay the role of revolutionists instead of reformers, when they set up one sex as of necessity antagonistic to the other, when they claim for women not liberty but license to set at defiance wholesome social regulations and nature’s laws.”27 Sarah M. Kimball, an independent and fearlessly progressive leader, likewise demonstrated deep respect for the direction and authority of male priesthood leaders as she confidently led the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society and the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah.28 She later revealed that “as time rolled on we were very careful,” demonstrating her awareness of the bounds of propriety.29 Kimball exemplified boldness, while teaching that “it was necessary the sisters be united in their efforts, but yet the women cannot accomplish much unless they have the hand of encouragement reached out to them by the brethren.”30
Utah quickly gained nationwide attention for its progressive extension of women’s rights, although suffrage remained intertwined with the controversial practice of polygamy for several more decades. The resulting complexities deepened divisions with “Gentile” women and disaffected Latter-day Saints, many of whom ultimately led the antipolygamy campaign to revoke women’s suffrage in Utah despite supporting women’s suffrage in general.31 These tensions in turn solidified unity among Latter-day Saints on the suffrage issue. Using primarily the structural organization of local Relief Societies, suffragists mobilized the majority of Utah women to combat negative perceptions, lobby against escalating antipolygamy legislation, and gather petitions advocating the protection of their suffrage rights. Despite their efforts, the federal Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 disenfranchised all Utah women as part of its crushing assault on the political and economic power of the Church of Jesus Christ.32 In response, Utah suffragists obtained permission from the National Woman Suffrage Association to form their own branch. Rather than act unilaterally, prominent Relief Society and suffrage leaders such as Emmeline B. Wells, Zina D. H. Young, Emily S. Richards, Bathsheba W. Smith, Sarah M. Kimball, and Jane Richards took the lead in securing ecclesiastical support before finalizing official national affiliation. They proactively proposed a plan to form a territorial suffrage organization to President Wilford Woodruff and other Church leaders, who unanimously approved.
At a large meeting of the newly formed Woman Suffrage Association of Utah at the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City on April 11, 1889, influential male and female leaders framed this new phase of women’s public activism in terms of equality and partnership. Martha P. Hughes (later Cannon), a prominent doctor and Utah suffragist who became the nation’s first female state senator just a few years later, gave a “well written address” in which she boldly declared, “All men and women are created free and equal.”33 Bishop Orson F. Whitney spoke at length, referencing the doctrinal basis for his belief in equality as he explained, “Woman is the other half of man; he is not complete without her. They are brother and sister, offspring of the same heavenly Parentage, and should go hand in hand in every righteous effort, in every worthy cause. . . . The advancement of one means the advancement of the other.”34 George Q. Cannon, First Counselor in the First Presidency, also voiced his practical support of equal voting rights, citing the “good work performed by able women” on behalf of Utah. He noted, “I have never seen any effects in connection with woman suffrage to deplore.”35 Charles W. Penrose advocated for women’s right not only to vote but also to hold public office.36 The speeches exhibited a high level of trust in women’s judgment, a commitment to women’s causes, and support for women in leadership as well as apprehensions about maintaining harmony. Echoing Eliza R. Snow’s earlier warnings against adversarial activism, Penrose cautioned against “berating ‘the monster man’” and encouraged cooperation, saying, “Man and woman should be together in all things.”37 Emily S. Richards also sought to allay concerns by assuring the audience that women’s suffrage did not “depart from woman’s true sphere in life, nor make her usurp man’s prerogatives,” concluding that “woman’s rights are human rights.”38
As local and county suffrage organizations multiplied throughout the territory in 1889, leaders continued to assuage public fears about women stepping into the political sphere. At the meeting forming the Juab County Woman Suffrage Association, newly elected president Elizabeth Ann Schofield directly addressed these reservations, saying, “Every lady should feel it her duty to make an effort to obtain the Franchise. Many do not understand the true meaning of Woman Suffrage. Some think woman is trying to usurp man’s rights. Not so! She only desires to stand side by side with him, and share those privileges he values as inestimable.”39 Upon being elected president of the newly formed Beaver County Woman Suffrage Association, Julia P. M. Farnsworth similarly declared, “I am a friend of humanity, which comprises men and women; they are inseparable.” Farnsworth dutifully reiterated the widely held belief that “woman’s true sphere is the home,” but she qualified this assertion by echoing teachings from Brigham Young and other early leaders that a woman should not be barred from also engaging in public enterprises if “she can do justice to other professions.”40
Latter-day Saint suffrage leaders also dispelled reservations about women’s activism by emphasizing top Church leaders’ support for the cause. For example, just five days after being sustained as General President of the Relief Society, Zina D. H. Young helped establish a local suffrage association in the Farmington Ward. Young specifically assured the Farmington Relief Society that the First Presidency approved of suffrage for women, and then the new association president Elizabeth Coombs reminded the gathering, “As an advocate of Woman Suffrage, Brother Joseph F. Smith said . . . that he had no right which he would not like to have his wives and daughters enjoy.”41 Apostle Francis Marion Lyman also spoke at that meeting and forcefully declared his own support of women’s equality while expressing dismay at the large percentage of men and women who were “suspicious of womans rights.”42 Elder Lyman asserted that President Brigham Young “was an advocate of the franchise of woman,” and that President Wilford Woodruff and the “brethren generally” advised the sisters to advocate for the cause, concluding, “I desire to say here that it is according to the mind and will of the Lord, as manifested by the First Presidency, that the women take hold of this woman Suffrage movement as they do in the Relief Society, every Latter-Day-Saint woman should join and use her influence for good.”43 These assurances of approval from the Church hierarchy were effective in establishing popular support for suffrage among Latter-day Saints like Clara Stayner, who served as the first vice president of the Woman Suffrage Association of Farmington. Stayner later said that she had been “greatly opposed” to women’s suffrage at first but became converted to the idea because “this move has been sanctioned by the authorities of the Church.”44
As more Latter-day Saint women joined in the cause of suffrage activism during the years leading up to statehood, they fostered more unity than ever before with women outside their faith but also experienced greater divisions within their own suffrage ranks.45 The 1890s were a complicated transition period as the Church sought to establish commonality with mainstream Americans in preparation for statehood.46 This acculturation included efforts such as renouncing the controversial practice of polygamy, joining the National Council of Women, and aligning with major national political parties rather than Utah’s unique religiously divided political system.47 Resulting partisan politics, power struggles, and personal ambitions led to fractures in the unity of the suffrage associations, causing what Emmeline B. Wells described as “considerable feeling and some pettiness.”48 Mary Isabella Horne observed, “Politics have divided us more than anything else that ever happened.”49 Reflecting their differences in party loyalty, Dr. Ellen Ferguson led an unsuccessful attempt to oust Wells from the presidency of Utah’s suffrage association in 1894. Wells and Emily S. Richards, the president and vice president, respectively, of the territorial association, were rising leaders in opposing political parties but overcame these tensions as they urged suffragists to maintain “the best of feeling . . . between the women of both parties” and to avoid “intense partisanship to hinder their working together for the public good.”50 Differences in strategic approach also threatened the unity of Utah’s suffragists. Just prior to the 1895 Constitutional Convention, a handful of militant suffragists tried to convince local members of the more moderate Woman Suffrage Association of Utah to defect and form a separate suffrage “League.”51
Wells mitigated these challenges and maintained suffragists’ loyalty in part by asserting her confidence in the relationships they had built with the leading men supporting the suffrage cause, writing, “I rather trust men than distrust them by far.”52 Women in Utah’s local, county, and territorial suffrage associations recognized that garnering the unified support of men as well as women was critical to laying the groundwork for regaining the franchise. The Women’s Exponent encouraged such cooperation, asserting, “When pure-minded women move earnestly and in unity upon some of these momentous questions at issue, and when noble, lion-hearted men are willing to join harmoniously in these great and high endeavors for the bettering of the condition of those who are powerless to lift themselves, . . . then there will be something permanent accomplished.”53 While serving as the president of the territory-wide Woman Suffrage Association of Utah in 1890, Sarah M. Kimball boldly stated, “Education and agitation are our best weapons of warfare.” Rather than direct this hostile imagery at men, however, she solicited their direct cooperation: “Believing that the best results follow the deliberations of men and women, we favor the admission of men as members of the [territorial suffrage] association.”54 As statehood became imminent and suffrage activism accelerated, Latter-day Saint suffragists sought to strengthen their cohesion with male supporters.
Statehood, Suffrage, and the Constitutional Crisis
In 1895, Utah Territory was finally on the brink of achieving its long-sought statehood. The official end of Church-sanctioned plural marriage had paved the way for Congress to pass the 1894 Enabling Act, inviting Utah to apply a seventh time for entrance into the Union. Utah’s Constitutional Convention opened at the new Salt Lake City and County Building on March 4 and continued until May 7. Prior to the convention, the women of the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah had assiduously secured pledges of suffrage support from the majority of delegates and both major political parties.55 This broad cooperation was reinforced by experience; Utah women had previously voted with positive results for seventeen years before their rights were stripped by federal antipolygamy legislation in 1887. Since that time, Utah suffragists had mobilized, lobbied, and kept the suffrage issue alive in Utah. Despite the appearance of unanimity, the issue still emerged as the Constitutional Convention’s most hotly debated topic. Several critical meetings held in conjunction with the convention revealed tensions and complexities underlying Utah’s widespread support for women’s suffrage. They also illustrated the active role that Latter-day Saint women played in securing the inclusion of suffrage rights in Utah’s new state constitution.
During this contentious and uncertain period, Latter-day Saint women remained the most consistent and vocal force behind restoring women’s suffrage rights in Utah. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, the women had organized suffrage associations in at least twenty-one Utah counties and were engaged at all levels of the debate. Since the delegates to the convention were meeting in the main chambers of the City and County Building on March 18, the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah held its own territorial convention just down the hall in the Probate Courtroom. That afternoon, several suffragists hand delivered a petition to the Constitutional Convention on behalf of “the great majority of the women of Utah.”56 The petition was signed by official representatives of the Relief Society and the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association as well as the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah, giving it religious sanction and claiming authority on behalf of the more than 35,000 Utah women in those organizations. This petition reminded delegates of their pledges and gratefully declared that the women were “keenly alive to the importance and far reaching consequences of your labor in our behalf.” It echoed the themes of equality, unity, and partnership that Utah suffragists had long fostered, asking the delegates to “open the doors that will usher [women] into free and full emancipation.” It also assured that the women sought “no rival sovereignty, no sphere peculiar and apart, no conflicting regime or antagonistic legislation, no hostile policy or divided counsels,” but rather “higher and truer harmony, more genuine and enlightened fellowship, more real co-operation, more vital and perpetual union.”57 The Woman’s Exponent similarly reminded its readers of their collective goals: “It is to help good men do better work that women wish for the franchise.”58
When debates erupted at the Constitutional Convention, the proposed suffrage provision became unexpectedly controversial. On March 28, delegate Brigham H. Roberts launched an eloquent attack that temporarily threatened passage.59 Roberts, one of the few Latter-day Saint leaders who vocally opposed the enfranchisement of women, strategically appealed to a wider base by not only attacking women’s suffrage on its merits but also stoking fears that it might jeopardize statehood. Several delegates joined Roberts in arguing that the suffrage question should be submitted as a separate vote after statehood was secure, but a large majority of delegates continued to support women’s right to vote. Andrew Smith Anderson immediately declared his support for including women’s suffrage, asserting that “the principles of justice demand it. It embraces the principles of human rights and liberties and that great fundamental principle that there shall be no taxation without representation.”60
Orson F. Whitney and Franklin S. Richards, both prominent members of the Convention and the Church, boldly led the defense of women’s suffrage based on principle over political expediency. They gave such eloquent arguments that the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah printed and distributed pamphlets containing their speeches. They attested to women’s intellectual, organizational, and civic capacity and directly addressed rising fears about the potential impact on statehood. Reminding the other delegates that there were “some things higher and dearer than Statehood,” Whitney argued, “I would rather stand by my honor, by my principles, than to have Statehood.”61 Franklin S. Richards similarly proclaimed, “I say that if the price of Statehood is the disfranchisement of one-half of the people, . . . it is not worth the price demanded.”62 Whitney also declared that a woman was not “made merely for a wife, a mother, a cook, and a housekeeper. These callings, however honorable, . . . are not the sum of her capabilities.” He further emphasized the spiritual basis for extending women’s rights by using arguments that would have resonated with the largely Latter-day Saint audience: “This great social upheaval, this woman’s movement . . . means something more than that certain women are ambitious to vote and hold office. I regard it as one of the great levers by which the Almighty is lifting up this fallen world, lifting it nearer to the throne of its Creator.”63
In response to these debates, the Apostles who met in the Salt Lake Temple on April 4 “unanimously condemned” the stand taken by Roberts, with “some going so far as to say that an enemy could not have betrayed us more or as much.”64 It is telling that these leaders interpreted Roberts’s arguments as a personal betrayal. Their disapproval stemmed in part from defensive concerns that the “heated speeches” would stoke latent animosity among the “Gentiles” and in part from their long-established history of ideological and practical support of women’s suffrage. First Counselor George Q. Cannon, who joined the meeting later that morning along with the rest of the First Presidency, recorded that “further conversation brought several brethren to their feet, in which they expressed themselves very strongly in favor of woman suffrage, particularly Brother Jos. [Joseph] F. Smith.”65 Cannon disrupted this unity by raising his own concerns about the possible impact of the suffrage provision on Utah’s statehood. Cannon himself had publicly supported women’s suffrage for years and had personally contributed funds to the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1878, but at this juncture, his support was challenged by the pressing need to secure statehood. Having just returned from Washington, D.C., where he served as Utah’s territorial delegate to Congress, he pragmatically persuaded the other leaders to not officially endorse the provision.66 While support for women’s suffrage itself was unanimous among this leading body of Apostles, they stepped back and allowed the process to play out.
Women in the territory were, as their suffrage petition asserted, “by no means indifferent spectators of the drama.”67 That same afternoon, local Relief Society presidencies and members from throughout Utah Territory gathered at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square for the afternoon session of the general Relief Society conference. Emmeline B. Wells, then serving as the General Secretary of the Relief Society as well as the president of the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah, spoke to the conference about the equal suffrage provision pending in the Constitutional Convention. Emily S. Richards then urged the congregation to “uphold the question and be united and stand firm.” Richards made a motion for all women who favored equal suffrage in the Utah constitution to stand. Bathsheba W. Smith, who had been the first Relief Society woman to make a motion publicly supporting suffrage twenty-five years earlier, seconded the motion, “and every woman in that large congregation was on her feet immediately.”68
This Relief Society meeting stood in stark contrast with the one held at Salt Lake City’s Grand Opera House the next afternoon, where a large group of women instead advocated for submitting suffrage separately after statehood. Many of these women, such as Jennie Froiseth and Cornelia Paddock, had led the antipolygamy crusade and helped secure the revocation of suffrage in Utah in the 1880s. Froiseth, Paddock, Brigham H. Roberts, and Charlotte Ives Godbe Kirby were among the main speakers at the meeting.69 Kirby, the first to officially represent Utah at a national suffrage convention, was ironically one of the only Latter-day Saint women to support separate submission.70 Kirby’s marriage to Latter-day Saint dissident William Godbe and her confrontations with Emmeline B. Wells made her connection to other Latter-day Saint suffragists tenuous, another example of fractures within Utah’s suffrage factions. In the coming weeks, women on both sides of the suffrage question circulated petitions throughout the territory.71
The spring of 1895 was arguably the most divided era in Utah’s history of support for women’s suffrage. The ability to successfully overcome these divisions demonstrates the strength of the bridges that Latter-day Saint suffragists had been building for twenty-five years since first obtaining the vote in 1870. During the Constitutional Convention debates, one delegate credited the Relief Society as the main force that had “worked up sentiment” for the inclusion of suffrage rights.72 The organization indeed served as a vehicle for suffrage activism, infusing their advocacy with spirituality and providing the structural organization to mobilize and disseminate suffrage information. Comprising the clear majority of Utah women, they also made up the majority of the membership in the territorial and county suffrage associations, with local Relief Society presidents often serving simultaneously as local suffrage association presidents. The tireless efforts of these women, and of the men who supported them, made the ultimate reconciliation of these tensions possible. The suffrage provision was approved by an overwhelming majority at the Constitutional Convention on April 5, and the final vote on April 18 successfully secured the inclusion of women’s right to vote and hold office in Utah’s new state constitution.
Beyond State Suffrage
After this victory, many Latter-day Saint suffragists remained personally committed to securing a federal suffrage amendment during the first two decades of the twentieth century.73 They often imbued their public activities with spiritual significance and evangelized equality, blurring religious and political lines by urging, “We who have accepted the new gospel of Equal Rights, must labor with untiring zeal for the redemption of the masses.”74 This conjunction of sacred and civic commitments fortified suffrage advocacy and facilitated Latter-day Saint partnerships on behalf of suffrage.
The week after the close of the Constitutional Convention, Susan B. Anthony and Reverend Anna Howard Shaw arrived in Salt Lake City for a regional National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention hosted by the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah. They were greeted with much enthusiasm by a large procession of Utah suffragists, and a crowd of more than six thousand attended their speeches that night in the Tabernacle. Despite the recent resurgence of discord among Utah women over the issue of separate submission of the suffrage question, this Rocky Mountain Suffrage Convention included an interdenominational group of suffragists who united in the larger goal of advancing women’s rights throughout the nation. Shaw praised the men of the Utah Territorial Legislature: “The work of the world demands the highest and best interests of men and women working side by side together.”75 Mary Isabella Horne, a prominent leader among Latter-day Saint women, similarly voiced her commitment to this universal cause, saying, “I would be glad if we could induce all the men and women to believe in equal suffrage for both sexes. God created us equal. . . . The time is coming when women will stand side by side with man, that they may work together.”76 As Latter-day Saint women continued their suffrage advocacy on a more national platform, they sought to do so “side by side” with the men who had supported them throughout their advocacy in Utah.
Leading suffragists in Utah were not on the margins of their religious society. They often served as prominent leaders within the women’s organizations of the Church of Jesus Christ and simultaneously engaged in petitioning, fundraising, lobbying, attending conventions, and serving in leadership positions in national suffrage organizations such as NAWSA, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, the National Woman’s Party, and the National and International Councils of Women. The Church funded several women’s trips to national women’s rights conferences, and male leaders of the Church repeatedly lent support and encouragement for women’s public advocacy. Emily S. Richards, who served as president of the Utah State Council of Women, appealed to shared spiritual goals when she requested that the First Presidency of the Church donate books for a NAWSA suffrage fundraiser, observing that it would be “a good opportunity to do some missionary work.”77 As Emmeline B. Wells was preparing to go to a National Council of Women conference, Church leaders including President Lorenzo Snow, President Joseph F. Smith, and Elder Heber J. Grant set her apart as if she were going on a mission. They gave her a priesthood blessing that she might have “influence with the women among whom she may associate in this Convention, . . . that they may become our friends and not our enemies, and that the rights and privileges which belong to the women of Thy people . . . may be recognized and acknowledged by the women of the nation and by all the people of the nation.”78 This blessing demonstrated not only Wells’s desire to have her public activities consecrated by priesthood authority but also the willingness of the Church to endorse her efforts for the benefit they provided to both the Church and the women of the nation.
Tensions emerged as Latter-day Saints tried to assimilate into early twentieth-century America, and suffragists continued to seek harmony among those of their faith when faced with conflicting or even dissonant voices. One of the most challenging examples occurred in 1899, when Emmeline B. Wells and other Utah delegates risked their membership in the National Council of Women by defending Brigham H. Roberts, once their most vocal suffrage opponent. Sacrificing a “golden opportunity” to demonstrate unity with other American women, they instead defeated a Council resolution denouncing Roberts as a polygamist.79 When they were forced to choose, their loyalty to the Church of Jesus Christ outweighed their allegiance to other causes. Even after a resurgence of such antipolygamy opposition among women’s organizations, the First Presidency continued to support women’s suffrage activities while cautiously urging the women to maintain their distinctive identity. They reminded Relief Society leaders that their religious identity was “paramount in importance” compared to other associations and advised them to lead rather than follow the examples of other women’s organizations, writing, “You are the head and not the tail.”80
Diverging approaches to women’s activism also arose among Latter-day Saint suffragists as they continued to advocate for a federal suffrage amendment in the twentieth century.81 Most Utah suffragists supported NAWSA but also initially embraced the rival Congressional Union’s more radical demands. Emily S. Richards, now the leader of Utah’s largest suffrage organization, ultimately denounced the methods of Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party (NWP). Annie Wells Cannon, however, served as Utah’s representative on the NWP advisory board while also faithfully and congenially serving on the Relief Society General Board with Richards.82 Latter-day Saint religious connections ran deeper than political or strategic differences, and suffragists managed to make space for different voices and maintain support for the suffrage cause. When the federal suffrage amendment was finally won, fifty years after Utah women had first begun to vote, Latter-day Saint men and women celebrated and took pride in the role they had played in this historic reform movement. At the October general conference in 1920, just after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, President Heber J. Grant stood at the pulpit and “expressed his pleasure that the women of America had been granted the franchise.”83
As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich so famously said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”84 Latter-day Saint suffragists undoubtedly made history. Although their controversial marital relationships and women’s rights activism were considered radical from the outside, within their own community they were considered “well-behaved women.” In fact, it was arguably because they faithfully worked within their social, religious, and cultural structures that they were so effective in building the bridges with Latter-day Saint men that expanded their political influence. They helped men understand that the advancement of God’s kingdom depends on the equality of men and women. These suffragists emerge as models of apparent contradictions: decisive, outspoken, and progressive while remaining respectful, faithful, and conservative. Neither adversarial nor passive, they were confident and assertive examples of women’s empowerment and religious commitment. As the Woman Suffrage Association of Utah reminded the Constitutional Convention in 1895, “The key and clue to all true progress is the large harmony that the Infinite Spirit is breathing into the rising grandeur of human development.”85 That harmony was the secret to their success.