Guest Post: Zion’s Suffragists Podcast Launch
By Dianna Douglas
It’s a year of grand anniversaries for American women: One hundred years since the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women’s suffrage nationwide. Fifty-five years since the Voting Rights Act protected racial minorities at the polls.
And, one anniversary unique to Utah — 150 years since women in America first voted under an equal suffrage law. It was so long ago that the issues and the passions of the time seem quaint, and the details hopelessly hazy. That is, if we can pull them up at all.
Women–and men–in Utah fought extraordinarily hard for the vote. This January marks 150 years since a cascading series of events brought Utah women to the front of the battle for women’s rights.
The story is all wrapped up in polygamy, patriarchy, and the competing pull in Utah between trying to lift women all over the world and just wanting to be left alone.
I created a podcast about the history of Utah women getting the vote for Deseret News–“Zion’s Suffragists”– after finding myself inexplicably drawn to the nineteenth century women who built Utah and created the church. The podcast launched today the anniversary of a mass meeting in Salt Lake City that started it all.
I first heard about the Salt Lake Indignation Meeting at the 2016 Exponent retreat, from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. (I’ll just note that I was almost forty years old, and had sat through exactly one million lessons where we studied the history of the church without ever hearing about this Indignation Meeting.) Her most recent book, A House Full of Females, about polygamy and women’s activism in early Mormonism, opens with a stunning scene: Five thousand women packed into the hard benches of the Old Tabernacle, speaking for hours about their rights as citizens.
“Have we transgressed any law of the United States?” asked Sarah Kimball, who had called this meeting. The audience shouted back, “NO!”
“Then why are we here to-day?” she asked. The immediate answer was that their church was under attack from the federal government, which was coming down hard on polygamy. A new had bill passed the U.S. House that would strip the Church of its property, put polygamous men in prison, and deprive polygamous wives of the their immunity as witnesses against their husbands in court.
The bill was headed for the Senate, and was about to become the law. People in Utah watched in horror. A few women decided to fight back.
“The bill in question would not only deprive our fathers, husbands and brothers of enjoying the privileges bequeathed to citizens of the United States, but it would also deprive us, as women, of the privilege of selecting our husbands, and against this we most unqualifiedly protest,” Sarah Kimball said that night, to thousands of her sisters.
But a deeper why–Why did they feel empowered to speak out? And how were they able to get five thousand women together, in just a few days, to attend this protest meeting? Why did they ask for the vote when they planned the meeting? Why would some of them decide that securing voting rights for all America women should be their life’s work? The answers to those questions begin with the organization of the Relief Society in 1842. They also form the heart of Laurel’s book.
But, back to the Indignation Meeting. Let’s return to the articulate, persuasive, intelligent women who organized an all-women’s meeting, with all women speakers. And then decided that they should invite a few men who were newspaper reporters, so that the meeting would be covered in newspapers around the country. They wanted to speak from Salt Lake City and be heard in Washington D.C.
Who does that?
Sarah Kimball, monogamous, had the idea of an all-women’s indignation meeting, just like she had had the idea of a women’s benevolent society back when she lived in Nauvoo. She had decided that women were powerful when they were together.
Eliza R. Snow, married to Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, took what was left of the Relief Society to Utah in a little book, and recreated it when she got there.
Bathsheba Smith, living in a polygamous marriage, decided that the women of the church would ask the governor of the Utah territory for the vote. And then did.
Amanda Smith, lost her husband and sons in a mob massacre in Haun’s Mill, Missouri, and said she was ready to die herself.
Phoebe Woodruff, struggling through her husband’s polygamous marriages, took the podium at the Indignation Meeting and warned the congressmen in Washington that they’d better be ready to build jails big enough to hold all the women of Utah.
The early days of Mormonism were radical. The women who embraced it were radical. They built new lives, carved out new freedoms, and arranged new societies.
The reporters at the Indignation Meeting were stunned. The meeting landed on the front page of the New York Times.
“It will not be denied that the Mormon women have both brains and tongues. Some of the speeches give evidence that in general knowledge, in logic, and in rhetoric the so-called degraded ladies of Mormondom are quite equal to the women’s rights women of the East,” wrote the New York Herald.
The legislature of Utah territory fell quickly into line, and wrote a women’s suffrage bill. It passed unanimously–every single man in the legislature voted ‘yes’ for women’s suffrage. Utah women started voting two days after it became law. Fifty years before the Nineteenth Amendment.
Equal voting rights should have been written into the U.S. Constitution in 1789. Thank God for the women of Utah, who pioneered a way to fix it.
Dianna Douglas is a radio journalist and podcaster who reported, produced, and edited for National Public Radio and in the public radio network for a dozen years. She has created podcasts for Slate, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post, and just finished the first season of a new podcast for the Deseret News. You can find “Zion’s Suffragists” on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or online at Deseret.com