Modern Latter-day Saint Scholars Dispel False Assumptions about Our Mormon Suffragist Foremothers

In the first issue of the Woman’s Exponent, the suffrage movement-era feminist journal for which Exponent II is named, Lula Greene Richards wrote:

Who are so well able to speak for the women of Utah as the women of Utah themselves? ‘It is better to represent ourselves than to be misrepresented by others!’ -Lula Greene Richards, June 1872

As I have studied the suffrage movement (I’m the author of Ask a Suffragist: Stories and Wisdom from America’s First Feminists), I have found that the best way to learn about women of my faith is from other Latter-day Saints. When I began studying suffrage, I was puzzled by how modern historians and authors would talk about Mormon pioneer suffragists. Mormon-dominated Utah territory gave women the right to vote 50 years ahead of the Nineteenth Amendment, and yet, many mainstream sources about the suffrage movement demonstrate an extreme lack of intellectual curiosity about why this was the case. If authors mention Utah women at all, they tend to do so as a disclaimer or footnote, and their comments betray false assumptions like these:

  • Mormon women were gifted the right to vote by Mormon men, almost as a surprise, without any advocacy by women
  • Women’s suffrage in Utah was just a ploy to protect polygamy, not a woman’s rights measure
  • Votes for women in Utah territory was an anomaly that had little relationship to the the wider suffrage movement

When I read books and journal articles by Latter-day Saint scholars, I learn a different story. Of course Mormon women advocated for themselves! However, their behind-the-scenes efforts to build support were often so effective that it seemed effortless to those who were not paying attention. Polygamy was a unique circumstance affecting women’s rights in Utah, but it didn’t magically provide Mormon women with voting rights, which was an intersecting but separate issue. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and these Mormon pioneers were both influenced by and influential to suffragists working nationwide.

A great place to start learning about Mormon suffragists from the perspective of Latter-day Saint scholars is a new special issue of BYU Studies Quarterly: Celebrating Women’s Suffrage. I was delighted to find articles contributed by some of the most respected and knowledgeable experts in Mormon women’s history, such as:

  • Carol Cornwall Madsen, the biographer of suffragist and Woman’s Exponent editor Emmeline B. Wells
  • Founding mothers of the modern Exponent II organization, Claudia Bushman and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  • Katherine Kitterman and Rebekah Clark, leaders of Better Days 2020, an organization working to popularize women’s history as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of voting rights in Utah, the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

Several of the authors featured within Celebrating Woman’s Suffrage have published books featuring the roles of Latter-day Saint women in the suffrage movement. Here are some examples that you might consider for further reading:

From Katherine Kitterman (with co-author Naomi Watkins and Illustrator Brooke Smart):

Champions of Change: 25 Women Who Made History

From Katherine Kitterman and Rebekah Clark:

Thinking Women: A Timeline of Suffrage in Utah

From Carol Cornwall Madsen:

Emmeline B. Wells: An Intimate History

An Advocate for Women: The Public Life of Emmeline B Wells, 1870-1920

From Jill Mulvay Derr:

Eliza: The Life and Faith of Eliza R. Snow

From Laurel Thatcher Ulrich:

A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870

 

 

 

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Cheryl Preston says:

    I have heard that leaders conceded to women’s suffrage because it increased the number of LDS voters in comparison with the votes of miners, traders, and “gentiles” in Utah. Do you see any of that sentiment?

    • That is certainly what anti-suffragists of the time period in Utah claimed was the motivation of their opponents, but that is not what pro-suffrage Mormons said. But when pro-suffrage Mormons talked about it, they tended to express their support in terms of social justice for women, not increasing the Mormon vote. After social justice, I would say that the second most common reason expressed by supporters was an opportunity to demonstrate that Mormons were woman-friendly (counteracting their bad reputation for that, which was, of course, caused by their practice of polygyny).

  2. EmilyCC says:

    What a great resource! It’s clear that I need to brush up more on my Mormon suffragist history.

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