Advocating for Women’s Health in Public and Private Spheres: WHO Year of the Nurse and Midwife

Advocating for Women’s Health in Public and Private Spheres
Guest Post by Tiffany Greene
Historical Research Consultant–Better Days 2020


In commemorating voting rights anniversaries that coincide in the year 2020–150 years since women first voted under an equal suffrage law in Utah, 100 years since the passage of the 19th amendment, and 55 years since the Voting Rights Act of 1965–we celebrate the work of women who fought for the right to enter in and make substantial impact to the public sphere. Women who knew that being part of the body politic was essential to ensure recognition of and support for the vital contributions women provide to their communities. By working for voting equality, women were claiming space in the public sphere, making sure that their needs were considered and addressed when public policy was debated and created. This was especially true in the field of public health. In Utah in the 1870’s and 80’s, women obtained medical degrees from accredited colleges in eastern states and returned home in order to treat and train women in their communities, as well as publicly advocate for women. Women like Ellen Ferguson and Martha Hughes Cannon both worked as physicians, and used their experience and expertise to advocate politically for the health and safety of Utahns. Ellis Shipp and Hannah Sorensen worked as health care professionals who also trained thousands of nurses and midwives as the 19th century drew to a close.


Dr. Ellen Brooke Ferguson

Ellen Ferguson was born and raised in Cambridge, England in 1835, later married Dr. William Ferguson and received medical training from him. When the couple moved to the United States, Ellen worked as a physician in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before converting to the Church and moving to Utah with William. When he died in 1880, Ellen continued her medical training, attending courses in obstetrics and gynecology in New York before returning to Salt Lake and serving as the first resident physician of Desert Hospital. She also had a private practice in Salt Lake City where she specialized in obstetrics and diseases of children.






Ellen was also a vocal women’s rights advocate. She was a member of suffrage associations on state and national levels before and during her 20 year residency in Utah. She was president of the Salt Lake County Suffrage Association in the early 1890’s and worked to ensure that women’s voting rights in Utah were reinstated with statehood in 1896. She also worked with the Democratic Party, canvassing for candidates and organizing the Women’s Democratic Club of Salt Lake. She was elected as an alternate delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 1896. She organized a home for women who were expecting but were not married, it was known as the “Home for Fallen Women” in Salt Lake. She was also a founding member of the first Utah Chapter of the Red Cross Society. Ellen advocated for women in the halls of government and in the sick beds of her private practice. At the turn of the century, Ellen moved to New York with her daughters. She passed away in 1920.





Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon


Martha Hughes Cannon courtesy of Utah State Historical Society

Martha “Mattie” Hughes Cannon was also a licensed medical professional whose work in the Utah State Senate established the first state run health department in the nation. Before she had turned 25 in 1882, Mattie had earned four college degrees from three different schools: University of Deseret–Chemistry, University of Michigan–Medicine, University of Pennsylvania– Pharmacy and Elocution. After returning to Utah, Mattie worked as a resident physician at the Deseret Hospital for a few years before her marital status proved problematic and she fled Utah to avoid having to testify in court against her own husband and/or her female patients who were also practicing polygamy.


With the Church’s formal ban against polygamy in 1890, Mattie was once again able to openly practice medicine in Utah. She advocated for women’s right to vote and gained notoriety as an eloquent public speaker on behalf of women’s equality. She became the first female state senator in the nation in 1896, when she ran as a Democrat against a very crowded Republican ticket that included her own husband!



As a state senator, Mattie focused her energy on passing public health and sanitation bills to further protect and help the lives of women and children in Utah. She gathered funds for a state school for speech and hearing impaired people, and pushed for legislation that regulated working conditions for working women and young women. During her time in office, she started the first state public health department in the nation. But the birth of her third child Gwendolyn again put her in social jeopardy since her polygamous marriage to Angus Cannon was outlawed. She traveled between California and Utah in the coming years, finally moving to California permanently in 1904. She continued to practice medicine at the University of California Granger Clinic. She also worked as vice president for the American Congress for Tuberculosis. She passed away in 1932.



Dr. Ellis Reynolds Shipp

Ellis Reynolds Shipp graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania with a degree in medicine, specializing in obstetrics and diseases of women and children. She left her own young children in the care of sister-wives in Salt Lake in order to attend school. Ellis returned home after her first year and was pregnant again with her 3rd child when she returned to Philadelphia to finish her second year of medical school.


After earning her degree, Ellis returned once again to Salt Lake and established a School of Obstetrics and Nursing in Salt Lake in 1879 where hundreds of women trained to become licensed midwives. Her classes were first held in The Women’s Exponent offices in downtown Salt Lake. Ellis later taught in classes in her private practice as well as out of her home. When the Relief Society organized the Deseret Hospital in 1882, Ellis was a member of the Board of Directors and also worked as a visiting physician at the hospital in addition to running her own private practice. It’s hard to overstate the impact of Ellis Shipp on the field of nursing and midwifery in Utah. The number of her personal patients as well as hundred of students who in turn had personal patients of their own is remarkable to consider.


Ellis passed away in 1939 in Salt Lake City. There is a park named after Ellis Shipp in Salt Lake, located at 567 E. 4th Avenue, near the clinic she started and ran during her 50 year medical career.


1896 Hannah Sorensen’s Midwifery Class, Bluff, Utah courtesy of David Walton and Family Search

Dr. Hannah Sorensen

Similar in scope but more international in experience, Hannah Sorensen was educated and worked for decades in Denmark before emigrating to Utah and establishing a nursing course that she taught throughout rural Utah in the 1890’s. She graduated from the Royal Hospital of Denmark in 1861 at the age of 25 and spent the next 2 decades practising obstetrics in a governmental facility in Denmark. Her conversion to the gospel and affiliation with the Church led to expulsion from her job and estrangement from her husband. She emigrated to Utah without the possibility of bringing any of her 10 children with her.


Once in Utah, Hannah overcame financial hardship and used her medical expertise to organize a Women’s Physiological Reform Class, a 6-week course that was sponsored by the Relief Society. Hannah taught mainly in rural communities like the remote southeastern Utah town of Bluff and central Utah town of Loa. The purpose of her course was three-fold: to teach hygiene, obstetrics, and sexual physiology. Even if women did not desire to work as midwives or nurses, she encouraged them to take the course so they could understand the physiology of their own bodies. Sorensen preached that women should understand their physiology in order to eliminate fear of the unknown and increase their ability to handle the unexpected. She published a companion book to go along with her class: What Women Should Know. Hannah embraced the ideology of the newly established field of bacteriology, which recognized the need for strict adherence to sanitation practices when caring for the sick or in the case of midwifery when caring for a mother and child before, during and after delivery. Her classes were influential in training an entire generation of rural Utah women, whose remote communities generally would not have access to other licensed medical professionals for decades, well into the 20th century.


When it comes to women’s health, there exists a duality to privately care for AND publicly advocate on behalf of women’s health issues. Women like Ellen Ferguson and Martha Hughes Cannon used their first-hand experience to advocate for women’s health issues in public policy circles. Ellis Shipp and Hannah Sorensen used their knowledge and expertise to train future generations of medical professionals. Professionally trained women were equally needed in the public and private spheres, in order for public policy to adequately address specific health needs and for best-health practices to be widespread and well-practiced thus preserving and sustaining the health of women in both urban and rural communities.


Further Reading


*Authors Note: Paiute, Shoshone, Navajo, Ute and Goshute women live in the area that came to be known as Utah and have practiced midwifery in ways specific to each of their bands, tribes, nations. This blogpost does not address the influence of indigenous women on these practices and the author acknowledges that european-american settlers had a devastating impact to indigenous communities and their cultural practices in the Utah territory in the time period discussed in this blogpost.

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4 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Thank you highlighting these impressive women. I love that there was space and encouragement in Mormon culture at the time for women to pursue professions and insert their voices into the public sphere. That’s one legacy to be proud of.

  2. spunky says:

    Thank you so much for highlighting these facts for us, Tiffany! I struggle with the church culture today, and wonder if there is a space for progression, or for women at all. Your teaching me the history of these motivated sisters reminds me of the power of Mormon women, and the drive for all of us to be allowed and provided health care. I am very grateful to you for your words; they have changed me in a good way.

  3. I love how learning about how these impressive women from history not only provided healthcare, but advocated policy changes that improved public health for all. What a great legacy for those that followed.

  4. Emily Clyde Curtis says:

    I found Hannah Sorensen’s story particularly moving. Thank you so much for sharing this!

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