Utah’s decision to give women the vote was later rescinded by the feds

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) In the 19th century, Utah’s polygamy was often described as one of the twin barbarisms of society, slavery being the other. As historian Thomas G. Alexander writes in the Winter 1970 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly, “Nineteenth century Utah appeared to non-Mormons or Gentiles, as they were called in the Mormon territory, to be a retrograde and barbarian place only slightly more advanced than the Moslem lands of the Near East, with which it was often compared.”

However, Utah’s leaders at that time were probably more progressive than many people suspect today. As Alexander notes in the JMH article “An Experiment in Progressive Legislation: The Granting of Woman Suffrage in Utah in 1870,” Mormon political leaders in Utah were more progressive than perhaps many have realized. In the Feb. 10, 1869 edition of the Deseret News Weekly, editor George Q. Cannon, also a counselor to LDS President Brigham Young, harshly criticized the capitalist structure that reduced the standard of living for most workers. From Alexander’s article:

“In an editorial he (Cannon) lamented the plight of the American workingman and the problems caused by the rapid centralization of wealth, (writing) ‘in the hands of the very few in this county {which} is unparalleled, and the unprincipled use of the power thus acquired, as witnessed during the recent Wall Street gambling operations {which} cannot but cause wide spread distress.

‘{This shows that} here as elsewhere, when power and wealth are acquired and exercised by the few who are not guided by principle, they are not used pro bono publico, but are made to answer private interests and to subserve selfish ends.’”

Polygamous Utah was presented to eastern audiences through the publication of scandalous “exposes,” hyperbolic penny novels, and smarmy travel accounts by authors who sought to mock the residents of Utah. The truth was far more complex. The LDS religion’s rationale for polygamy, outside of its doctrinal explanation, as Alexander writes, “was seen as a method of reforming society and eradicating social evils by contemporary Mormons. Church leaders saw this reform as a way of freeing women from slavery to the lusts of men and making them honored wives and mothers with homes of their own and social position.”

With this egalitarian theory of the sexes, it’s not surprising that Utah was one of the first states to grant women voting privileges. As Alexander notes, editor Cannon supported women’s suffrage in the Deseret News, arguing that women would do more to promote “legislation of such character as would tend more to diminish prostitution and the various social evils which overwhelm society that anything hitherto devised under universal male suffrage.”

In short, Cannon, and by extension the Mormon leadership, were arguing that a society which allowed both sexes to vote would be a better society. And universal suffrage occurred in Utah 143 years ago. It was the second state, behind Wyoming, to allow the vote in the still-young era of the suffrage movement. On Feb. 12, 1870, acting Gov. S. A. Mann, after receiving the suffrage bill from Speaker of the Utah House, and LDS apostle, Orson Pratt, signed the bill.

Mann signed it with reservations, and Utah Gov. J. Wilson Shafer, who was out of state at the time, said he would have vetoed the bill. The coolness with which these non-Mormon government officials received the suffrage bill underscores the unpopularity and suspicion that Utah was subject to. Nevertheless, on Feb. 14, 1870, women in Utah voted in a Salt Lake City municipal election. As Alexander notes, despite being to second to Wyoming in passing a suffrage bill, due to the timing, Utah women voted before Wyoming women.

There were many prominent women in Utah at the time whose influence extended beyond Utah or the Mormon Church. Emmeline B. Wells, as well as Sarah M. Kimball, were both active in national women’s rights organizations and held positions in the church’s Relief Society. In fact, as Alexander notes, after suffrage, “Relief Society meetings became classes in government, mock trials, and symposia on parliamentary law.” Also, women served on school boards in Utah, as well as a coroner’s jury, and Miss Georgia Snow, a niece to Mormon Judge Zerubbabel Snow, was admitted to the Utah bar, notes Alexander.

The fact is Utah women did not use suffrage as a tool to echo their husband’s or father’s opinions on an issue. By all appearances, they used the privilege of voting in an effective and patriotic manner. Nevertheless, in what was certainly an ironic move by the federal government, Utah women lost suffrage rights due to the Edmunds Tucker Act of 1887. The law disenfranchised all polygamous men and women. Yet, as Alexander notes, a provision to the law took voting rights away from all women in Utah Territory.

A key reason that Utah’s suffrage rights ended after 17 years was because it became clear that granting Utah women voting rights would not bring about an end to polygamy, or elect non-Mormons to office in the state. As Alexander notes, this came as a surprise to outsiders, who shared the near universal disgust of Mormons and the Utah hierarchy of the period. Those who made federal laws, and others with little knowledge of Mormonism, simply did not understand women such as Emmeline B. Wells or Eliza R. Snow, or Sarah M. Kimball, who saw no conflict between their belief in the LDS religion, polygamy and their efforts to better the lives of women.

Alexander dismisses those who believe Mormon men in Utah supported women’s suffrage as a way to consolidate its power in Utah. As he notes, there was a progressive sentiment among Mormon intellectuals in the latter half of the 19th century. In fact, based on the editorials of that era in the Deseret News, it can be argued that the church was far more liberal in that era than it is today. As Alexander writes, “Cannon’s editorials … are progressive and optimistic in tone. They speak of the perfectability of man, the need for equality in the community and the high place of women in Mormon society.”

In fact, several years later after universal suffrage in Utah was snuffed out by the feds, the people of Utah supported it via a huge majority in the 1895 state Constitution.


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9 Responses to Utah’s decision to give women the vote was later rescinded by the feds

  1. Steve says:

    While I find the discussion of suffrage in Utah to be very interesting, I have to take issue with the defense of polygamy presented in the piece. According to Alexander: “Church leaders saw this reform as a way of freeing women from slavery to the lusts of men[.]” This is a paltry rational for polygamy. In essence it says, “The only way to sate the irresistible lust of men is to have so many women in the household that none will find the man’s constant need for sex onerous.” That’s hardly “freeing”. It reminds me of the rationale behind the burkha: upon seeing a woman’s face and hair a man is so overcome with lust that he cannot control himself and so women must constantly be veiled. Perhaps a better solution is for men to be held accountable for their “lust” and expected to control themselves. No polygamy or burkhas necessary.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      It was not meant to be a defense of polygamy, at least from my side. Polygamy is not a good thing. In fact, Wells, Kimball and other polygamous women were well aware of the poor treatment and abandonment, material or otherwise, that many polygamous women experienced. They protested and criticized and lobbied against that lack of responsibility from husbands. They did believe in what they called “The Principle,” however. And they felt that the polygamous lifestyle, “The Principle,” as they believed it, was designed to allow an enhanced role for women. That’s why suffrage for women in Mormon-dominated Utah was a proposition that enjoyed a lot of support.

      • Steve says:

        I suppose the connection just wasn’t made for me. I was tripped up by the ridiculousness of the Alexander quote and then by your sentence that followed it: “With this egalitarian theory of the sexes…” As far as I know, polygamy only went one direction in Utah: a man could have multiple wives. For the society of the Mormon Territories to be truly egalitarian, then women would have to have been allowed to have multiple husbands and I don’t think this was the case. Giving women the vote was definitely egalitarian, but little else in the Mormon Territories at the time was.

        It is certainly obvious that the Mormon church was much more progressive in its early days than it is now, which is more than a bit ironic. It would have been nice if their view on women’s suffrage had been adopted by the rest of the country instead of squashed by it.

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  3. Mark Sparkman says:

    Doug, I always look forward to your reviews, analysis and critiques of the more interesting tidbits of Utah history that you come across.
    When you say that the LDS church was more progressive then than it is now, it seems illustrative of the principle of classic vs. romantic, experimental vs. tried and true, liberal vs. conservative. The new becomes old, and thus we defend what once we championed, as it were.

  4. Wayne Dequer says:

    Thanks for reminding us of these wonderfully ironic historic incidents. I am very happy and contented with one wife, but I acknowledge the specific intent and selected practical advantages to the institution of plural marriage as well as many well-documented abuses. The “Principle” was never easy for most to understand, much less practice with the proper attitudes. However, some of the Mormon women of this period were among the most accomplished, articulate, and yes, “liberated” of all women in 19th century America. I am grateful that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer encourages, allows, or tolerates polygamy by any of its members even in parts of the world where it is legal.

  5. A Backward Simpleton says:

    Curious that the analyses of this question do not go back far enough. Curious that they adopt the thinking of “progressive” society.
    Curious that one does not attribute any divine or practical resons for polygamy.
    Curious that they do not accept any part of the explanations given by some historians that polygamy was sanctioned by God in ancient times, and that it was of practical value during the emerging church when many women were left without husbands in or out of the church. This became a way to care for those lonely and destitute women.
    Curious that some fall for the myth that sex was a dominant factor in the practice. And that men cannot control their “lusts” by living holy principles in marriage.
    Curious that in spite of some abuses, families thrived in the “practice”

    • Mark Sparkman says:

      Curoiouser and curiouser, said one person who delved deep into the “underpinnings” of the world…but, Alice aside, I wonder where giving women the vote appears in the Word of the Almighty. You wander south of the question under discussion.

  6. Neal Cassidy says:

    One of the underlying reason for giving women the vote is simple. Many non mormon men were arriving in the territory. There was a real concern that non mormons were be sufficent enough in number to swing the election. By giving women the vote the non mormon vote was diluted by the surge of polygamous mormon women allowed to vote.

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