Martha Hughes Cannon honored as first female Utah State Senator

Courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune

On Monday, September 14, 2020, a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon was unveiled at the Utah State Capitol. Cannon was the first female elected as a state senator in the United States in 1896, beating out her husband who ran against her as a Republican.

The statue of Cannon was originally going to be installed in the National Statuary Hall in the South Wing of the U.S. Capitol in August, in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving (white) women the right to vote, but has been indefinitely postponed because of COVID-19.

In the National Statuary Hall Collection each state is represented by two statues. Utah’s statues are Brigham Young and Philo T. Farnsworth, who invented the television. Cannon will be replacing the statue of Farnsworth as soon as it can be possible. State lawmakers approved this switch in 2018, 122 years after Cannon took office.

“Mattie” Hughes Cannon was an OG Mormon feminist. She was a Welsh-born immigrant whose family immigrated to the United States as converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Born in 1857 Cannon was a remarkable woman for any day and age, but especially for a woman born in the Victorian era. Not only was she a State Senator, she was a physician and women’s rights suffragist. At the tender age of 14, Cannon was the typesetter for the Women’s Exponent and enrolled at the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) as a pre-med major at just 16. She graduated with a degree in Chemistry in 1878. She took post-graduate courses at the Auxiliary Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania and became the resident physician for Deseret Hospital, where she set up training for nurses and lectures on obstetrics.

Controversial as the fourth wife of Angus Munn Cannon (did I mention she beat him in the election?), Cannon eluded federal officers wanting her to testify against her husband after the Edmunds Act of 1882 and exiled herself to Europe. After Cannon returned to Utah she became a leader in the Utah Suffrage Association and seven traveled with noted suffragists of their day, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Cannon was featured speaker at the World’s Columbia Exposition of 1893. In her fight for women’s equality she defended education, freedom, and polygamy.

As a Senator, Cannon sponsored many laws regarding medical safety, including pure food laws.  She set up a commission that provide for regulations around contagious disease. She was appointed to the Board of Health and tried to prohibit un-vaccinated children from attending schools while the smallpox epidemic ravaged Utah. Which is why I think it is ironic that an infectious disease pandemic is keeping her statue from being erected in Washington, D.C. at this very moment. After leaving the legislature, Cannon continued to serve on the Utah Board of Health and as a member of the board of the Utah State School for the Deaf and Dumb. Cannon died on July 10, 1932, at the age of 75 in Los Angeles and is laid to rest at the Salt Lake City Cemetery, just down the hill from her new statue.

“[L]et us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness, but strive to become women of intellect, and endeavor to do some little good while we live in this protracted gleam called life.” Mattie Cannon in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner

Risa

Risa has a Masters and Bachelors degree in Social Work and is a full-time social worker in child abuse prevention and CASA volunteer. She is a mother of 4 and in her spare time she is a voracious reader, snarker, and subversive cross-stitcher.

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3 Responses

  1. I love hearing about Martha Hughes Cannon and I am so glad you acknowledged the unveiling of her statue on this blog. It will be exciting when one of the (unfortunately few) women with a statue at the U.S. Capitol rotunda is a Mormon feminist! As a public health advocate, I think she would have understood about the postponement.

  2. Spunky says:

    I love Martha Hughes Cannon!!! Thank you so much for celebrating the unveiling of her statue here!

  3. EmilyCC says:

    What a great recounting of her life! I remember reading somewhere that she was an avid diarist and asked a family member to burn all her journals after she died…they did. But, oh, I fantasize about the stories that must have been told in them.

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