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Living History: In Utah, women got the vote 50 years early

Published February 8, 2014 9:52 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Several readers called "bogus" on my cartoon last week that implied the Utah Legislature is congenitally behind the times on social issues by several decades. The example they cited was Utah women voting in the 19th century.

The Utah territorial legislature did indeed grant women the right to vote on February 10, 1870 — 50 years before the 19th Amendment made female suffrage the law of the land. But how the legislature got to "yes" is an interesting story and provides some important context.

The idea of giving voting rights to Utah women was floated in the U.S. Congress. Representative George W. Julian of Indiana proposed enfranchising women with his legislation, "A Bill to Discourage Polygamy in Utah." The bill would simply give Utah women the right to vote, who would then throw off their patriarchal polygamist yoke.

The idea never got to a vote, but was taken up by E. L. T. Harrison and Edward Tullidge, who championed the notion in several articles in their publication Utah Magazine. (Harrison and Tullidge, intellectual Mormon gadflys, would soon found The Salt Lake Tribune).

Utah territorial legislators, then as now predominantly Mormon, were receptive. They knew their own women better than eastern anti-polygamy crusaders. Mormon women were strong in their religious devotion and would vote their faith — they had no reason to fear the specter of women armed with the ballot.

Mormonism in the 1800s was also curiously progressive. Whereas the rest of the country compared Latter-day Saints to barbarians, Mormons thought of themselves as enlightened, as only a people who have the ear of the Almighty can be.

Mormons weren't shy about flouting convention. Polygamy was just one example. Mormons at the time continued to toy with communalism, and the creation of the Zion Cooperative Mercantile Association was bald-faced socialism meant to run the competition — capitalist gentile businessmen — out of the territory.

Women had been crucial to the success of the Mormon experiment. Throughout the settlement of the West, gender roles didn't count for much when a job had to be done, so there was little doubt about the capabilities of women when the legislature gave them the right to vote in 1870 (though, it should be noted, not the right to hold elective office).

Intrigued by this new development, longtime suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony came to Utah in 1871 to see for themselves. The women lectured on equality and women's rights, drawing large crowds to the Tabernacle. It was when they denounced polygamy that the tabernacle doors were shut to them.

After it was clear that the women of Utah weren't going to end polygamy at the ballot box, the country embarked on a voter suppression drive aimed not just at the women but at Utah Mormons in general.

Allegations of voter fraud stoked the drive to unseat Mormon power in the territory. It didn't help that more than half of Utah was foreign born, and historians concede there were certainly instances of voting by aliens and underage girls.

The draconian 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act deprived polygamists of their rights, the LDS Church of its property, and Utah women of the vote.

But with the 1890 Manifesto and the rejection of polygamy, statehood was on the table and there was another chance to reclaim the vote. Women and their allies made their wishes known in the 1895 constitutional convention, and despite strident opposition from Mormon general authority B.H. Roberts (most Mormon leaders favored suffrage), female voting rights were included in the Utah Constitution.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.






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