A resolution passed by the same body that solidified her status as a trailblazer — both figuratively and literally — is sending Martha Hughes Cannon to the United States Capitol.
The legislation voices the legislature’s support for replacing the statue Philo T. Farnsworth in National Statuary Hall with one of Cannon. Each state contributes two statues to represent the spirit and legacy of their people. Utah’s statues are currently Brigham Young, former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Farnsworth, who invented the television. With the help of the legislature, Farnsworth will likely be exchanged for Cannon — an unfamiliar face in Utah.
Cannon was a turn of the century feminist, suffragette, doctor, politician and a University of Utah graduate.
In 1873, Cannon studied at the U, then known as the University of Deseret, where she completed night courses in pre-medicine while working as a typesetter for the Deseret News and later the Woman’s Exponent. Cannon decided to become a doctor after Young, who was president at the time, called on women of the church to pursue medical degrees. She often cited her experience as a pioneer trekking across the plains, where she watched many die from infectious disease, including her father and sister, as the basis for her medical curiosity. After graduating from the U in 1878, Cannon went on to obtain three more degrees — a doctorate in medicine, a Bachelor of Science and a bachelor’s degree in oratory.
Cannon’s legacy far exceeds her education. In the 1870s, women in Utah were able to vote, but by means of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which prosecuted known polygamists in the state, Utah women lost this right.
As a leader of the Utah Women’s Suffrage Association, Cannon gave speeches advocating for the vote at suffrage conferences across the nation alongside prominent suffragettes, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. By 1895, the work of local women led by Cannon’s activism restored the right to vote for Utah women — over 20 years before women’s suffrage would be achieved nationally by the 19th Amendment.
That same year, Cannon made history as she ran in a highly contested race for the Utah State Senate in which she competed against fellow women’s suffrage activist Emmeline B. Wells and her own husband.
That November, Cannon became the first woman elected to a state legislature in the U.S. As a senator, Cannon championed policies for the disabled, women in industry and for state sanitation policies. With her medical knowledge, Cannon was revered for her intrepid desire to serve the underrepresented.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, proposed the resolution.
“I have been surprised by how many people are unaware of Martha’s story,” Weiler said. “I have been saying for years that I’d like to put her in Statuary Hall, and many have encouraged me to pursue it. I felt like the timing was right this year with 2020 just around the corner. Installing Martha in 2020 would be the perfect way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.”
Elise Scott, a junior in political science and communication at the U, is proud Cannon could represent the state.
“I love her because she’s this strong person who is complicated and filled with multiple contradictions,” Scott said. “She’s a feminist and Mormon, a suffragette and a polygamist, a pioneer and a trailblazer.”
Scott feels Cannon represents an intersection of feminism that is widely disregarded because of religious beliefs.
“She just did everything — activism, political involvement, on top of several degrees,” Scott said. “She became a doctor by attending night classes all throughout her undergraduate career. She is the definition of persistence.”
As SCR1 awaits final signature from the governor, Scott hopes Cannon can show Utahns the role of women in the state’s history.
“Many people say, ‘If women want to be well-known, why don’t they do more?’” Scott said. “Martha is just such good proof to say that women like that have always existed. They have done their duty and they have served people, and they still go unknown and misunderstood. It’s really easy to assume that women like that aren’t out there. A lot of people just don’t know where to look for them because of the time that they assume that women like that aren’t in our history.”
At a time when women are demanding respect and access to all fields through movements like #MeToo, Weiler believes putting Cannon in the U.S. Capitol is an opportunity to empower women.
“It’s important that Martha’s story be told,” Weiler said. “SCR1 [passed out of] the Utah House on the 148th anniversary of the first woman voting in Utah. Martha was decades ahead of her time and there is no better time to tell that story than right now.”