Last night our feminist book club discussed Pioneer, Polygamist, Politician: The Life of Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon. Here is a great summary article of the book if you care to learn more about this incredible woman. Also, there is a documentary about her life being broadcast in Utah on July 11th and 22nd. It’s a shame that we don’t learn about Mattie in church, especially in Relief Society where examples of strong women are so rare.
Briefly, Mattie was born poor, but became acquainted with Emmeline Wells and Eliza Snow who encouraged her to go to medical school. When she became a doctor, she was the first resident at Deseret Hospital (started by the Relief Society). She married Angus Cannon (brother of George Q.) as his fourth wife but had to hide it for most of their marriage because of federal prosecution. After hiding for years in Europe with her daughter she returned to Utah. At one point, she ran for state senate against her husband and won. As the first woman state senator, she founded Utah’s board of public health, started a school for disabled children, and won battles to control Utah’s smelly sewage problems which lowered death by contagious disease. Because the birth of her third child showed they were still practicing polygamy, Angus went to prison and Mattie was removed from her position at Deseret Hosptial. She moved to California and still contributed heavily to philanthropy there, raising money for orphans of WWI.
Through most of the book I couldn’t understand why a woman like Mattie, smart, well-traveled, independent, thoughtful, with a sarcastic streak, would be a part of polygamy. The truth was that she loved him. In her letters to her husband from exile, she alternates between being angry about polygamy to repenting and acknowledging it as God’s will. She had opportunities to marry men and have a monogamous relationship, so why didn’t she? Our book group discussed the idea that polgyamy was a symbol of righteousness and status in the early church. It was something that the Prophet started and Brigham Young fully embraced. Perhaps Mattie always knew she would be a polygamist but just hated the actual life that it gave her.
Her cognitive dissonance must have been unbearable. Even by today’s standard, her life was progressive, except this one small detail. As I think of the implications for the way the church teaches about women’s roles today I’m also conflicted.
I feel angry that the church was so progressive back in Mattie’s day and yet so not progressive in my day. For example, in addition to Brigham Young setting her apart to go to medical school, the church hosted a fundraiser for her studies, something they had only done for men previously.
The following quote was given by Joseph F. Smith, Counselor in the First Presidency, during the 1895 general conference of the Relief Societies. This was while Mattie was practicing medicine and living as a secret polygamous wife.
“Why shall one be admitted to all the avenues of mental and physical progress and the other prohibited and prescribed within certain narrow limits, to her material abridgment and detriment? . . . [S]hall a man be paid higher wages than is paid to a woman for doing no better than she does the very same work? . . . By what process of reasoning can it be shown that a woman standing at the head of a family, with all the responsibility resting upon her to provide for them, should be deprived of the avenues and ways or means that a man in like circumstances may enjoy to provide for them? . . . If the women have equal rights, they must bear equal burdens with men. . . . [T]hey do this already, except that they are deprived of the enjoyment of equal rights.”
It seems that the church was in favor of women’s equal rights at this time because it supported the cause of polygamy.
When polygamy disappeared from the horizon, women’s rights became much less important. (See Whoa-man’s brilliant series on the ERA).
Here’s a quote from my lifetime by Ezra Taft Benson, Quorum president, 1981, General Conference. (The book says that he gave this quote “literally at full shout.”)
”Contrary to conventional wisdom, a mother’s place is in the home! I recognize there are voices in our midst that would attempt to convince you that these truths are not applicable to our present-day conditions. If you listen and heed, you will be lured away from your principal obligation. . . . Some even have been bold enough to suggest that the Church move away from the “Mormon woman stereotype” of homemaking and rearing children. They also say it is wise to limit your family so you can have more time for personal goals and self-fulfillment.”
When we read these quotes back to back at the book group there was a heavy silence. It was as though the our female souls had been murdered and we, our mothers, sisters, daughters, had been willing accomplices.
How tragic is it that our institutional memory is so short and women’s institutional power is so small that we can allow our mothers, sisters, daughters, our own lives to be clipped and put into a box created by one narrow set of men with one narrow view of women?
I don’t think Mattie would have accepted the change in doctrine toward women. I’d like to think that she would have stood up for women’s right to work outside the home. In an interview she was asked how a working woman could be a good mother, replied: “Somehow I know that women who stay home all the time have the most unpleasant homes there are. You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I’ll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother.”
But then again, her life was filled with the pain of polygamy, so maybe she would identify with tension we feel between our free spirits and our allegiance to the church. Maybe we are more like Mattie than we realize.