More like Mattie

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.



Jessawhy is a wife, mother, community volunteer, activist and student. She is currently working towards a Physician Assistant degree.

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24 Responses

  1. Jenn says:

    Love this post! I often get bored by “let’s examine the life of such-a-such a pioneer saint” but Maddie sounds fascinating.

    • Jessawhy says:

      I have to admit that I wasn’t excited to read this book initially. I thought she was a polygamist wife who was sent later to medical school. The fact that she chose polygamy after becoming a doctor made her more interesting to me and her life is really fascinating.

  2. Emily U says:

    Wow, I just loved this! I can only hope that the pendulum will swing back (this time without polygamy).

    • Jessawhy says:

      Emily U,
      I hope the pendulum swings back. One way I see that happening is by us learning about Mattie and teaching about her life and contributions in church.

  3. Kim says:

    “Her cognitive dissonance must have been unbearable.” “her life was filled with the pain of polygamy”

    Please show me where she actually voices these things. Putting your words into her mouth is not really portraying who she really was.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Here’s a quote from Mattie,
      “I often wonder why I have been subjected to the life I have led for the past three and a half years. It is certainly one of three things. Earning a `big’ reward, atoning for past delinquencies, or else because I am a damned fool.”

      Her pain and cognitive dissonance come across loud and clear in her letters. I recommend reading the book (or the article I linked to, it’s a very thorough summary of the book)

      • Diane says:

        Jess and Kim,

        I think this is an even better sentiment that is very telling of how she felt about poligany

        In a letter to her husband, she said “How do you think I feel when I meet you driving another plural wife about in a glittering carriage in broad daylight? I am entirely out of money, borrowing to pay some old standing debts. I want our affairs speedily and absolutely adjusted-after all my sacrifice and loss you treat me like a dog-and parade others before my eyes-I will not stand it.”

    • Olive says:

      “Were it not for the daily petitions to God for strength, the adversary Satan would make me feel and believe it is really a condition of degradation instead of one of honorable wifehood.”

      The book makes it very clear, that while she thought she was doing the right spiritually, it was extremely hard for her to sumbit to this lifestyle. There are many letters between her and her husband Angus, and also her best friend Barbara (who was not LDS) quoted in the book where she speaks of her marriage and there is much pain in them.

      The book was very interesting! I would recommend reading it also!

  4. john willis says:

    I don’t know if the book you are reading mentions this but she ran against her husband in the first election for the Utah State Senate after Utah became a state. (The ballot was one of those pick three out of six situations).

    In any case she got elected and her husband didn’t. A number of people commented that the best man won.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Yes! That was in one of my drafts, I guess it didn’t make the cut.

      She actually ran on a slate of candidates as did her husband, so they were not exactly running against each other as much as they were running against the other party’s slate of candidates.

      But still, very funny anecdote.

    • Olive says:

      I loved that part! In the book they hinted that perhaps it was not so much a point of contention in their relationship as the media tried to make out, and that Angus was glad and supportive of her winning. I hope that is the case!

  5. geoffsn says:

    Thanks for linking to my post! I admit in it that I heavily quoted from the book. I took the wonder of Kindle highlighting and then pieced the highlights together like pearls on a string and threw up the post.

    I understand the feelings of anger about how the status of women’s rights within mormonism has so drastically changed. As a man and lifelong mormon I can say that women’s rights isn’t something I ever thought about until the last few years. I can share how I’ve come to terms with it. It still bothers me and I still want equal rights both in society at large, but also equality in church. However, when I look at the larger historical context, I can at least make more sense of it even if I still wish things were different.

    While certainly not a primary purpose of polygamy, it did in a strange way contribute to Utah being at the forefront of first wave feminism. Todd Compton appropriately named his bio on Joseph Smith’s wives “In Sacred Loneliness” because most (if not all) polygamist wives were very lonely. They were functionally single mothers who largely supported themselves. This was at least part of the pressure to give women equal opportunity at employment, the men weren’t able to provide for their families.

    Additionally, the early church didn’t seem to view family as the ‘fundamental unit of society’ like today, but rather the community itself was fundamental. This is seen in the Orders of Enoch and the co-ops. Brigham also spoke about how when all the women wake up and make breakfast for their families in the morning, it’s a big waste of time and manpower. He thought the ideal would be to have a community cafeteria and have a few people make the food for the whole community (sort of making parts of personal and family life be made an economy of scale). To build these communities, women needed to be considered equal to men in order for the church to have success in its communitarian endeavors. Because of pressure from the government the church gave up communitarianism, theocracy, and polygamy for capitalism, democracy, and monogamy. When this occurred, the need for building community wasn’t nearly as pressing as under a communitarian system. There was one wife for each husband, so it was possible for him to provide for the family alone. As such the church retracted heavily from it’s progressive women’s rights views.

    The more history I read, the more I realize that all change is a mix of good and bad. I suppose all of us as individuals are also a mix of good and bad. The more we can recognize both the good and the bad in the people, institutions, and societies, the better equipped we are to help mitigate the bad and maximize the good in the world.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I admit that I enjoyed your post more than the book because it was shorter and contained the most relevant details.

      Good point about all change (and all people) being a mix of good and bad. It’s easy for me to think of the church as willfully oppressing women, but I know that they are just doing the best they can with what they have to work with.

    • Olive says:

      Yes, there’s the flip side that while they championed “women’s rights” back then, it did have a dark side to it, in that it was to support polygamy, which wasn’t the ideal lifestyle for most of these women and their children. It is still nice to hear a church leader say ANYTHING different than the current social norms, even if it was for a completely different time period and purpose than we would like to apply to it now! I am still happy to use them for my own purposes though. 🙂

  6. Amelia says:

    Such a great post, Jessawhy. I have this book on my shelf and you’ve inspired me to pull it off the shelf and read it.

    I think the most powerful part of your post is the contrast between the quotes from two prophets. It’s really unbelievable how different they are. I wouldn’t wish myself back to the 19th century by any means, but it would be so nice if our current church leaders were at least as progressive as their 19th century predecessors in this particular regard.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Thanks, Amelia.

      I hope you do read the book.

      I just got an email from a family member who was quoting George Q Cannon (Mattie’s BiL) on counseling together as couples and it struck me as ironic considering he was practicing post-manifesto polygamy like his brother. Lots of councils because there were lots of wives.

  7. April says:

    Sometimes I feel like our church has way too much inertia–even though many (most?) Mormon women work, and I see that many church leaders are tired of berating them for this, and we brag about our accomplished female professionals in Church PR campaigns, we still feel like we have to shy away from being totally supportive of these women out of respect for something a deceased church president said back in 1981.

    And then, you share a quote from 1895 and I realize that the church is perfectly capable of change.

  8. Nate C. says:

    As always, well said. Cataloging this for future reference. I love the Smith quote. I am amazed at how full our history is of quotes like that right up until the 19-teens.

  9. Amelia says:

    For those interested, there’s a documentary about Martha Hughes Canon airing this month in SLC on KUED (8:00 on July 22) and at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (7:00 on July 11).

  10. honey says:

    When one hundred years have passed and my descendants look back at my life, I hope they don’t feel sorry for me, and mourn over my lack of university degrees, my failed marriage, my subsequent marriage to a non member, my endless homemaking chores, my less than faithful children, or the foolish children that have testimonys.! There were polygamous women who were strong, weak, educated, ignorant etc, etc, etc, just like the monogamous women in the church today. We can read what they wrote but I don’t believe we should project into their lives feelings that we can not know.
    I value every challenge in my life for what I gained in experience and knowledge and I made all my own choices. I refuse to blame any young womens’ leader, bishop or general authority for the life I have lived and I pray my children and grandchildren won’t feel sorry for me. There is no reason for them to feel sorry for me, I have a wonderful life.
    Sister Cannon got to choose, so do I, so do all of us in the church. We should honor those who choose. I think that is what real feminism is.

  11. Naismith says:

    While I am always glad to read more about a wonderful woman in church history, I was a bit put off by the hyperbole. Well, maybe that was for effect, but still.

    What is the definition of a “strong woman”? Does one have to have a college degree and career? Or can a strong woman be one who had eight children in the fact of societal pressure to have no more than one, and certainly no more than two?

    Are we really allowing “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?” Or is it possible that the prophet is indeed in tune with the Lord’s will for us, and there is an actual need for parents to spend more time nurturing and teaching their children nowadays than there was in an era when Christmas carols were actually taught in public schools?

    I don’t know. But when I think of women’s souls being murdered, I also think of non-member women who can’t have as many children as they desire or can’t even consider being a full-time mom for a season because their spouse doesn’t view homemaking as fit work for an educated person.

    Most of the women who I know are not LDS, and this is often the reality of their lives. A few weeks ago I was speaking to a university orientation session, and of course they mentioned the number of my children as part of the introduction. Later a parent asked why I had so many children–was it a second marriage, blended family? I said no, that I’d only been married once but we felt there was another spirit for us. I told her about that feeling of sitting in the car waiting for one more to burst out the door, etc.

    She was so excited, and said she had felt that too. She was sure it was a boy! But “of course” her husband wouldn’t consider having more than two. So she didn’t actually have that baby.

    She has a great career and all, but I don’t think the way she lives is more “progressive” than those of us who are faithful LDS. Her life is different, not necessarily better. The gospel perspective can bring a lot of respect to traditional women’s work and contributions.

    • Annie B. says:

      I agree that homemaking and child-rearing is an acceptable and honorable life path for women. I also believe that for many women a career is an acceptable and honorable life path. I think the problem can go either way. Pigeonholing a person into one path or the other based on gender, even if their own hearts/personal revelation is leading them to something else is harmful. You give an example of a woman who was dissuaded by her husband from having another child. For what it’s worth, I think the husband is an important part of that equation and his feelings/desires on the matter are just as important as the wife’s. If that husband’s views were colored by societies expectations, or if the wife felt society would look down on her for having more children, then that is very sad. To me it’s just as sad when society or religion looks down on women or considers them less valuable for having sought a career. From this post I didn’t read any elitism…that women who choose career are strong but women who raise children are weak…I just read a representation of one woman’s path, acknowledging it as just as valuable as if she had solely raised children.

      My mom also had that “where’s my other child” feeling on several occasions. My dad subscribed to the idea that the more children you had, the more God would bless you. I’m one of eight kids. My mom also suffered from depression pretty badly and babies helped calm her anxiety. The only problem with that is that babies get bigger and as they do their needs get bigger too. Very often I felt like just another squeaky wheel and spent a lot of my childhood trying to squeak as little as possible. As an adult, I can appreciate that my parents did the very best they could, but because my parents often didn’t have the resources or time to tend to me as an individual, I feel a little used, like my parents considered me just a ticket to secure their own salvation. I know children in large families don’t always have the experience that I had, but some do. I think balance is an important thing to remember.

  12. Annie B. says:

    Mattie definitely seems like an interesting woman. I can kind of relate to the complex nature of her feelings towards polygamy. I think as a kid I wanted very badly to be obedient to everything the church taught, but at the same time couldn’t agree with the “rightness” of some of the principles. I was still under the impression that it was either all true, or all false. And because there were some principles that I absolutely knew were true and good (love, forgiveness, charity, repentance) I thought I just needed to continue on and the rest would eventually make sense and I’d be able to live them happily. But now that I trust more in my own connection to God than my dad’s or any other church leader’s, It makes so much more sense to acknowledge (considering agency and what we’re all here to learn) that great good and great ill can come from any one person and that it’s wiser to accept each principle individually on its own merits.

    The comparison of differing attitudes on the roles of women was really interesting. It reminds me of a post a while back that discussed the Relief Society and how it was eventually integrated into the church under the umbrella of priesthood authority, whereas previously it had been it’s own authority. A commenter on that post pointed out that the integration was around the same time period that the practice of polygamy was abolished. I often think the Relief Society served as something of a consolation prize and maybe even a distraction from polygamy for the women during the early days of the church. It was founded when rumors were circulating that Joseph Smith was taking on multiple spiritual wives, while Joseph Smith was still publicly denying and renouncing the practice. Women did come up with the RS organization and nominated Emma as the president, but I can’t help but think it was a convenient distraction. Because of accounts I’ve read of Emma calling out one of her friends at a Relief Society meeting on a rumor of that friend being taken as one of Joseph’s wives, and because of the founding of it occurring while Joseph was taking plural wives, (some of them behind Emma’s back) Relief Society continues to be an anxiety trigger for me.

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